Product Placement Links Celluloid and Cellulite

The first comprehensive analysis of its type finds food and beverage products appear in more than two-thirds of popular movies.
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The first comprehensive analysis of its type finds food and beverage products appear in more than two-thirds of popular movies.

Ever since E.T. was enticed out of hiding by the otherworldly goodness of Reese’s Pieces, sugary and salty snacks have played significant supporting roles in American cinema. A new study finds such products are pervasive in popular films and warns of potential health consequences.

“Movies provide an avenue through which companies are marketing foods of low nutritional value to consumers, including children and adolescents, who may not even be aware of the advertising,” a research team led by Lisa Sutherland of Dartmouth Medical School reports in the journal Pediatrics. They examined the top 20 films (in terms of box office revenue) from 1996 through 2005 and found the experience not unlike strolling through a 7-Eleven.

The researchers found 1,180 “brand placements” in the 200 movies: 427 food brands, 425 beverage brands and 328 brands of food-related retail establishments such as restaurants or convenient stores. Sixty-nine percent of the films contained at least one such product placement, and in those movies, specific brands of foods or beverages were consumed, handled, shown or mentioned an average of 8.6 times.

“We found sugar-sweetened beverages composed the largest proportion of all the brands we recorded, accounting for one of every four brand placements that we identified,” the researchers report. “This is substantially greater than the percentage of television ads devoted to sugar-sweetened beverages.” (So much for the wisdom of popping a movie into the DVD player so the kids aren’t exposed to commercials.)

Candy/confections were the most prevalent food brands, appearing in 26 percent of the films surveyed. They were followed by salty snacks at 22 percent, sweet snacks/desserts at 12 percent and condiments at 9 percent.  “The overwhelming majority of the brand placement were for energy-dense, nutrient-poor products,” the researchers note.

“On average,” they add, “comedies had a high number of brand placements,” presumably because marketers prefer to have their products associated with lightness and laughter. (Fava beans did not experience a measurable sales jump following their mention as a scrumptious side dish in The Silence of the Lambs.)

The more restrictive its rating, the more likely a film was to contain product placements of branded foods. They were found in 33 percent of G-rated films, compared to 58.5 percent of PG-rated, 73.2 percent of PG-13-rated and an amazing 80.8 percent of R-rated films.

That should provide some small comfort for parents. On the other hand, even one-third of G-rated films is a substantial number, and as Sutherland and her colleagues note, a global study of young adults found viewing specific brands in movies is “the best predictor of their trying a new product.”

“Coca-Cola and PepsiCo (which together account for almost three-quarters of the beverage-brand placements) have long-standing commitments not to advertise their soft-drink products during children’s television programming,” the researchers write. “Yet sugar-sweetened beverage products from these companies regularly appeared in movies, especially those rated for children and adolescents.”

So they get the reputation of being good corporate citizens while still reaching their young, impressionable target audience. Sweet! Talk about having your cola and drinking it, too.

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