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Scenes for sale: Product placement in films

Updated Aug 18, 2016 02:37pm

Product placement has existed in films since the baby boomers were whizzing around with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on Piaggio’s Vespa scooter in the much loved 1953 film Roman Holiday. Generation X, in the same way, looked at a young boy Elliot as he left behind crumbs of Hershey’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to befriend an alien in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. For the millennials, however, the backgrounds and the foregrounds of the film frames are all stamped with product logos, like the oversized branded popcorn tubs and cold drinks that they get before entering the cinemas. Having a samosa from a vendor weaving through the aisles of the Nishat Cinema seems to exist only as romanticised nostalgia. I wonder why ticket stubs are not branded yet.

The history of product placements goes as far back as the origin of cinema, though its initial manifestations were more like an artistic necessity than a commercial and financial one. Jay Newell, Charles T Salmon and Susan Chang in their 2006 paper, The Hidden History of Product Placement, published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, argue that it began with family connections between film producers or film studios and product manufacturers. The products were gifted or loaned for set designs and/or story props. As a result, products were used in the films without any money involved. They were first employed as a business proposition after movie ticket sales had gone down during the Great Depression of 1929. Initially, the idea was to use branded products free of cost in order to cut expenses on building, buying or renting different goods required in a film.

Catering to advertisers rather than audiences is a pitfall that Pakistani films should at best avoid.

By the mid-1950s, companies were emerging which worked exclusively around the idea of showing branded products in the films. They formed relationships with Hollywood producers and prop managers, and would gain access to scripts before shooting began, looking for opportunities for their clients’ products and making suggestions to the studios, says Canadian broadcaster Terry O’Reilly in an August 2015 article. In 1962, Sean Connery’s James Bond drank Red Stripe lager and Smirnoff Vodka rather than a martini in Dr. No and flew Pan Am. Many years later, the manufacturers of Heineken reportedly paid 45 million US dollars – almost a third of the total movie budget – to have Bond drink a bottle of beer in Skyfall, O’Reilly points out.

The term “product placement” started coming up in the 1980s when an increased scholarly interest in the use of commercially manufactured goods in films seemed to have coincided with the appearance and subsequent popularity of Reese’s pieces in E.T. Before that, the use of commercially manufactured goods was called with various other names such as ‘tie-ups’, ‘tie-ins’, ‘plugs’ and ‘trade outs’.

A screengrab from film Karachi se Lahore
A screengrab from film Karachi se Lahore

Films, which accounted for only 15 per cent of the total global entertainment revenues in 2015, are not the only medium using product placements which have existed across a range of media such as television, film, video games, music, fashion and sports — and even in literature and theatre productions. When in 1873 Jules Verne wrote Around the World in Eighty Days, shipping firms competed to be mentioned in the book. Charles Dickens uses Pickwick, a commercial carriage, in the eponymous novel The Pickwick Papers. Sarah Bernhardt (1844 -1923), the famous French stage artist and film actor, wore La Diaphane powder during her stage appearances; she also endorsed the brand on its posters.

An in-film product placement happens when a movie scene portrays a brand or product either verbally or visually or in use, explain Rosemary J Avery and Rosellina Ferraro in their 2000 book Verisimilitude or Advertising? Brand Appearances on Prime-Time Television. Some placements mention the product but do not show it (for example, the song Fair & Lovely Ka Jalwa in the 2015 Pakistani film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani). Others show the product but do not mention it (an Audi R8 car in Iron Man and The Avengers, a Wilson volleyball and a Fedex box in Cast Away). Then there are products-in-action — those used by the characters in a movie.

The song Fair & Lovely Ka Jalwa from film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani

A study done by Alex Walton on top grossing Hollywood movies made between 1920 and 2010 shows that 85 per cent product placements have been visual only. This means the product was only shown on-screen, either in use by a character or as a part of the set, and never mentioned, he writes in his study published in The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications in 2010.

Many film-makers – Spielberg and the producers of the James Bond franchise to name a few – are largely unconcerned whether product placements are an integral part of the story or not. Others, such as Ben Affleck and Mike Myers, have cleverly woven products into storylines. The fact that Myer’s hilarious screenplay of his 1992 movie, Wayne’s World – which is, in fact, about product placement – was paid for by the sponsors, makes it even more interesting. The film starts with a corporate representative trying to convince Wayne that he should let the sponsors place their products on the set of his television show. Wayne, as he fishes out a slice from a Pizza Hut box, says he will not bow to any pressure from the sponsors.

Many film-makers — Spielberg and the producers of the James Bond franchise to name a few – are largely unconcerned whether product placements are an integral part of the story or not.

Affleck’s 2012 film Argo, which won multiple Oscars, had as many as 21 brands making an appearance – from Adidas to Mercedes to Sony. Some of these brands were, indeed, appropriated into the film’s Iranian context — a KFC outlet with signage in Farsi. He, however, does well to make all those brands an integral part of Argo’s story about a plan to smuggle out American embassy staff under siege in Iran.

As films are increasingly becoming available on television or via video-streaming services such as Netflix, advertisers have started using retroactive product placement to digitally rebrand old movies by changing signage and geographical references — sometimes even replacing an earlier product with a new one. This practice is as common for hit films as it is for television shows. For instance, a 2007 season of television show How I Met Your Mother was rebranded in 2011. This kind of rebranding is sometimes also territory specific — the digitally inserted brands change with each territory to suit local preferences.

A screen grab from the film Ho Mann Jahan
A screen grab from the film Ho Mann Jahan

Placements have certainly helped products do better commercially. Cars shown in Hollywood films sparked a demand in Europe for the American-made vehicles. Britain’s tea bureau was able to increase tea consumption in the United States by 17 million pounds per year through tea scenes in over 80 movies in just 24 months during the early 1950s, writes Kerry Segrave in his 2004 book Product Placement in Hollywood Films: A History.


Bollywood may be a late entrant in the product placement arena but has caught up with Hollywood at a fast clip. Thanks to prolonged lobbying by film producers, Bollywood was granted an industry status almost a decade after India’s economic reforms started in the early 1990s. This qualified films to avail the same financial services and tax breaks as enjoyed by other industries in the country.

It was around that time that Subhash Ghai’s film Taal was released. In what has become a cult romantic song from that movie – Ishq Bina – Ashwariya Rai’s character Mansi and Akshaye Khanna’s Manav spend almost two minutes over a bottle of Coke picked from a tray full of other competing beverages such as Pepsi, Limca and Marinda. Khanna picks up the same bottle of Coke Rai was sipping from — his lips caressing the straw and then taking a sip from it. He then offers it back to Rai who after some hesitation and vociferous persuasion by Khanna drinks it thirstily. Ghai, obviously, wanted the audience to feel the kiss shared over a Coke worth a few hundred thousand rupees of product placement revenues.

A screen grab from the film Dekh Magar Pyaar Say
A screen grab from the film Dekh Magar Pyaar Say

Though the cost of in-film brand placement is generally not disclosed, Coke is reported to have paid 7.5 million to 10 million Indian rupees for its placement in Taal. The same brand is said to have paid 20 per cent of total production cost – a whopping 33.5 million Indian rupees – for Ghai’s 2001 film Yaadein.

Industry insiders point out that it was the 1973 film Bobby that used a branded product as the most visible prop. Directed by Raj Kapoor, the film shows a teenage couple eloping on a Rajdoot mini motorbike. It is quite likely that the bike was used as a non-paying prop, as most products used those days were either gifts or loans. The bike, however, soon became a rage among teenagers who nicknamed it as Bobby.

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Since then, motorbikes – and also cars – have had long association with different Bollywood actors who use these vehicles to promote and perpetuate their alpha male images. Hrithik Roshan, for instance, has driven fancy cars and heavy bikes in films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (released in 2001), Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage (released in 2002) and Koi... Mil Gaya (released in 2003). In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, his character, Rohan, makes his first appearance on campus in London in a sleek red sports car. The camera spends some time on the car and its unique features, finally revealing the muscular, toned body behind the wheel — a comparison not to be missed. Soon afterwards, he switches to riding around the same campus on a yellow motorbike, a Hero Honda. It is evident from these examples that product placement in Bollywood films was poorly integrated into the storylines.

A screengrab from the film Main Hoon Shahid Afridi
A screengrab from the film Main Hoon Shahid Afridi

As research has guided advertising design in recent years, subtlety has been favoured over overt product placement. Piku, a small budget film released last year, offers an interesting study in this regard. Having won both critical and commercial acclaim, it has about 12 brands woven into its script. Even for a discerning eye, they are so well integrated in the film that they do not become too obvious to disrupt the flow of the narrative. There are, for instance, inserts of snapdeal.com and Amul ice cream and milk. Jaypee Greens, a property firm, gets a five-second insert on the highway as Piku and others drive to Kolkata. Brands such as Priyagold Snakker, Himalayan water, Syska chargers and CEAT tyres appear several times in the film’s road sequences but for merely a few fleeting seconds.

Independent, or small budget, films usually have content that advertisers may not want to be associated with. Such films, therefore, require strong financial planning and funding strategies not necessarily reliant on advertising.

Researchers point out that product placement is more readily acceptable in India than elsewhere in the world. Nelson and Deshpande in their study, The Prevalence of and Consumer Response to Foreign and Domestic Brand Placement in Bollywood Movies, explain that this could be due to the fact that “visual images resonate” well in Indian society. A product turned into an image is highly likely to stick to the audience’s minds long before they have seen it. The researchers also argue that a society as conscious of social status as India is, would be especially suitable for linking film stars and showbiz celebrities with certain products to increase the popularity and sales of those products.


Actor and playwright Vasay Chaudhary talks about what is often cited as the three ‘golden eras’ of Pakistani cinema. The first one was in the 1950s; the second one began in the 1960s and lasted till the early 1980s; and the third one started in 1994 and lasted till 2000 with films such as Sangam (released in 1995), Choorian (released in 1998) and Inteha (released in 1999). At the height of their productive days, Pakistani studios, even by conservative estimates, released more than 100 films a year. Some 600 to 700 cinemas were operating in the country at the time.

Lately, there has been a lot of conversation about the revival of cinema in Pakistan. While signs are good – both in terms of functional cinema halls and local films to fill them – it is too early to conduct that conversation in absolute terms of resurrection and death. The tide started turning for the better by the end of 2014 with Na Maloom Afraad doing well at the box office. By 2015, with films such as Jawani Phir Nahi Aani, Teen Bahadur, Bin Roye and Manto attracting big audiences, the value of Pakistani cinema is estimated to have reached 700 million to 800 million Pakistani rupees, according to Marylou An-drew writing for the Aurora magazine’s November-December 2015 issue. But box office returns are not the only marker of measuring how good or bad the content of a cinema is. While Pakistani films are getting technically better with each frame due to access to affordable digital technologies and trained human resources, there has been loud criticism about weak storylines and focus on in-film product placements in many of them.

A screengrab from animated film Teen Bahadur
A screengrab from animated film Teen Bahadur

Looking back at the Pakistani cinema, there have been some examples of brands supporting content unobtrusively. Mehreen Jabbar’s 2008 directorial debut Ramchand Pakistani was supported by brands such as English Biscuits Manufacturers and telecom operator Wateen. The sponsors were quietly acknowledged in the opening credits and they were happy with offering brand support only behind-the-scenes. Two films directed by Shoaib Mansoor and financed by Geo Films, Khuda Kay Liye (released in 2007) and Bol (released in 2011), did well at the box office due to good content, lack of competition and overseas release. Their success only vindicated the decision by their producers to stay away from product placement as a source of revenue generation.

Film stills from the 1966 Waheed Murad starrer Armaan, showing the product placement of Coca Cola
Film stills from the 1966 Waheed Murad starrer Armaan, showing the product placement of Coca Cola
Ko Ko Korina From Armaan

This encouraged others to tread the same placement-free path. Films such as Zinda Bhaag and Josh (both released in 2013) as well as Dukhtar, Waar and Na Maloom Afraad (all released in 2014) did not feature product placement. On the other hand, Humayun Saeed starrer 2013 movie Main Hoon Shahid Afridi featured many brands such a Pepsi, Nike and Habib Bank Limited — which, anyway, are part of Pakistan’s cricket universe which is what the film is about.

Meenu Gaur, who co-directed Zinda Bhaag with Farjad Nabi, explains why Main Hoon Shahid Afridi could tap product placement as a source of revenue and why others could not, or rather did not. Product manufacturers prefer straightforward feel-good films for placements, she says. “Brands want to be associated with simple, happy and seemingly positive films.”

Gaur expects Pakistani film-makers to do the same thing that film-makers in other parts of the world are doing — using product placement subtly. “There needs to be an understanding that brands have to integrate with and be placed within the universe of the film, and not the other way round.” Given the direction Pakistani films have taken in 2015, however, product placements are already looking outrageously blatant.

Also read: Jami: Director's take

At the risk of stating the obvious, one needs to be mindful that in-film advertising has grown exponentially in the global market so it will do so in Pakistan. The question is: to what extent will it be conscious of the audience sensibilities? Working out a scene with a brand placed tastefully or subtly in it, after all, is dependent on several factors including the way a production house negotiates a deal with the sponsoring companies, scriptwriting and direction. Film-maker Jabbar emphasises the importance of these same factors in determining whether brand mangers and eager film producers will have an easy entry route for products into the storytelling processes. “There have been examples of overbranding,” she says. “I think our industry is still nascent and it is learning how to go about in-film placements with each film.”

The learning process, however, seems to be rather patchy. In Dekh Magar Pyaar Say, released last year, the focus on Sprite blurs the line between advertising and storytelling so much that it left the audiences wondering whether to take it as a long drawn-out commercial – made almost entirely in the green Sprite palette – or as a feature film. To make an already egregious use of product placement look unseemly, the two main characters give away the McDonalds’ home delivery number and sing its jingle while discussing lunch.

A screen grab from the film Dekh Magar Pyaar Say
A screen grab from the film Dekh Magar Pyaar Say

Another 2015 release, Karachi Se Lahore, plummets to a similar path 10 minutes into its start with what could only be seen as a three-minute infomercial for Habib Bank Limited. That the protagonist is working at a bank is established by inserting a pointless conversation between him and a security guard at his workplace. The bank’s advertising standees in the background are so embedded in the frame that they can only be compared to the protagonist’s stiff gelled look. There are many moments in the film when you think that product placement could not be stretched any further than this but then the director, Wajahat Rauf, proves the viewers wrong time and again. Take, for instance, the minute-long scene in which an old man is told how to use an automated teller machine.

After an hour of a cacophony of verbose, overexposed scenes and a barrage of product placements, what could have been a tender scene between the two lead characters is stolen by yet another product. The suspension of disbelief for Cornetto ice cream’s presence by that time becomes such a familiar feeling that one is willing to overlook it in favour of an airy admission of love by the female lead. What yanks one out of that romantic world is a third character, her younger brother, who seizes a half-eaten Cornetto cone from his sister’s hand while yelling out its name with full force of his vocals. If that is not sufficiently over the top, the male lead snatches the cone in the penultimate scene as he proposes to his lady love with it. There are several share-your-love-powered-by-Pepsi moments, too.

If Pakistani cinema wants to do well, it is counterproductive for it to lean towards compromising storytelling, which is the main ingredient to sustain the interest of both local and global audiences.

Product placement is taken to a new cinematic low in Jawani Phir Nahi Ani by dedicating an entire song to a fairness cream. This is over and above several made-for-television commercials for Fair and Lovely and Tarang tea whitener which run through the entire course of the film which also features a long sequence at a McDonald’s outlet while its main character is shown giving away Voice Mobile and Sony products as gifts in another scene. The truth is Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, with Chaudhary’s witty writing, could have really done well without products screaming out loud from its frames.

Coke Studio weaved into the narrative of film Ho Mann Jahan

The characters in Teen Bahadur are similarly shown having copious amounts of Gluco biscuits; and in Shah (another 2015 release), Bank Alfalah and Pepsi hammer the film with the same heavy-handedness that other products exert in the movies mentioned earlier. The only exception would be last month’s release Ho Mann Jahaan. It smartly weaves Coke into its narrative, including in its turning point when the lead characters get selected to perform at the Coke Studio.


It is understandable that film-makers are strapped for money and brand sponsorship is one of the easiest solutions. But is this the only solution available?

Director Jamshed Mahmood, known as Jami, who released his critically acclaimed film Moor recently, goes to the extent of arguing that a film-maker has an ethical responsibility to avoid product placements. “It is white-collar robbery by producers to show advertised scenes [in films] when the audience has paid for a movie,” he says.

Jami’s own work embodies a paradox. He is an ad-film-maker with over two decades of experience in promoting products yet he has a staunchly independent film-making vision — one that does not even consider brand tie-ups. He has steered away from product placements in his last two films and plans the same with his upcoming one, Downward Dog. “I will not let anyone pimp my film. I will not sell my film to commercials,” he says.

A screen grab from the song ‘Fair & Lovely Ka Jalwa’ featured in the film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani
A screen grab from the song ‘Fair & Lovely Ka Jalwa’ featured in the film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani

Coming as he does with a vast experience in advertising, Jami warns against the dangers that product placement brings in its wake. “Once you bring a lion to dinner who knows what it may ask for. ‘More and more’ is the mantra in the advertising world and that is where a brand takes over the story of the film. A fairness cream owning a film for me is the example [of such excess].”

Independent, or small budget, films usually have content that advertisers may not want to be associated with. Such films, therefore, require strong financial planning and funding strategies not necessarily reliant on advertising. Apart from advertisers and financiers lacking interest in novel themes and complex narratives, cinema in Pakistan is beset by another problem: local films usually get 25 per cent of the entire cinema space available in the country. The rest goes to Indian films (50 per cent) and Hollywood movies (25 per cent), usually the animated ones. Given that there are only 83 to 85 screens in Pakistan right now, the window of financial opportunity for a Pakistani film to break even or make money is inadequately small. A well-made film like Moor suffered financially partly because it got only 20 per cent screening space.

Also read: Who should the next biopic be based on?

One way of overcoming the problem is to increase the number of cinema screens — economies of scale may help film-makers make more money than they do now. That is exactly what is happening in Iran, which is half the size of Pakistan in terms of population, but has 300 to 350 cinema screens. While many of those screens show popular action and romantic films, a sizeable number is still available to film-makers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi and Majid Majidi who have put Iran on the international film map. The main factor behind their success outside their own country is that they have been supported by the revenues generated within Iran and have content strong enough to attract international funding. The government support is also an important factor contributing to the global success of the Iranian cinema.

A screengrab from film Karachi se Lahore
A screengrab from film Karachi se Lahore

Iran has undergone major social and cultural changes since its 1979 Islamic revolution which has had a major impact of artistic activities, including film-making, the same way Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation has in Pakistan. In another similarity with Pakistan, the number of active cinemas in Iran dropped drastically as did the number of films produced during the early years after the revolution. In the 1970s, at the height of Iran’s most productive film-making years, there were 700 screens in that country. But then Iranian film-makers have successfully made films on small budgets with stories that have become part of international film lore. Farhadi’s 2011 movie, A Separation, won him an Oscar even when it was made on a budget of just 700,000 US dollars. It went on to get an international release in 282 cinemas, making 22 million US dollars worldwide.

The song Lagan ki Tarang from the film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani

Anurag Kashyap, the Indian director known for making small-budget films such as Black Friday, Gangs of Wasseypur and Ugly often talks about the economics of film-making and profitability as reasons why film-makers end up resorting to financing through product placements. He hints at an innovative strategy to avoid that — piggybacking on the success of big commercial hits. His last film, Ugly (released in 2015), hit cinema screens around the same time the big-budgeted, star-studded PK was already well on its way to gross seven billion Indian rupees. “The law of nature is such that small fish that want to survive in dangerous waters, stick around a massive blue whale thereby saving themselves from shark attacks. PK is the blue whale and we are the small fish,” is how in an interview he explained his decision to release Ugly a week after PK was released. “Even if five per cent to 10 per cent of people from every screening of PK come to watch Ugly, the film will make a profit. And if three to four per cent come, we will break even,” he is reported to have said.

The same can be said for Ship of Theseus (released in 2014), a poignant Indian drama film that was seen by a large audience because of its distribution strategy based on the buzz it had created in the film festival circuit. In Pakistan, Bin Roye and Wrong Number seem to have done well – at least partially – because they were released around the time Salman Khan starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan was pulling in audiences in large numbers.

A promotion image from film Ho Mann Jahan
A promotion image from film Ho Mann Jahan

These instances are instructive as well as heartening. If Pakistani cinema wants to do well, it is counterproductive for it to lean towards compromising storytelling, which is the main ingredient to sustain the interest of both local and global audiences. This is especially important at a time when the cinema here is slowly beginning to spread its wings.

Another reason why Pakistani films need to focus on storytelling is the pace at which digital technologies are advancing. As Internet speeds improve, access to diverse content via torrents, Netflix and social media will increase, especially in big cities. This means that film-makers will find it difficult to lure local audiences to cinemas if they do not produce quality films. Audiences will rather watch a Bollywood movie on the Internet at home than going to a cinema and spending many hundred rupees on a Pakistani movie which markets products instead of telling a story.

Catering to advertisers rather than audiences is a pitfall that Pakistani films should at best avoid. For the magic to happen for the Pakistani cinema, content has to reign supreme and while the brands may be able to save the film-makers from a sharp fall, it will only be momentarily.


Opening illustration by Marium Ali.

This essay originally appeared in the Herald's February 2016 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.