Back in August, in the fourth issue of this year's Journal of Popular Culture, there was a great essay on product placement and looking at the unpaid placement of the Wilson ball in the Tom Hanks scenes on the deserted island in Cast Away.
The essay examines the rising business of product placements in film and television and looks at the Wilson example to try and figure out how much a product placement of that sort would have cost Wilson and also a qualitative analysis of the effects of this type of brand exposure.
This piece, "Unpaid Advertising: A Case of Wilson the Volleyball in Cast Away," is written by Dr. Michael L. Maynard, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and Advertising at Temple University, and Megan Scala, a doctoral candidate at Temple.
According to the Wikipedia page for the film, the movie may be best known for its prominent product placement. However, the site points out that FedEx, which also received prominent placement in the film, did not pay for that exposure, which means that the film is not a profitable example of product placement, but certainly one to point out how product integration creates meaningful long-term brand connections. When people think of that film, they still think of FedEx and Wilson. (By the way, the real CEO of FedEx did appear in the film, so FedEx was involved but did not pay for the exposure, and the Wikipedia page reports that the company worked closely with the film to make all FedEx products seen authentic.)
This type of exposure reminds me of Seinfeld's treatment of Oh Henry! and Junior Mints and J. Peterman, in which the brand becomes an important part of the joke that people still remember to this day. This type of prominent product integration has to be handled carefully and can easily be considered overkill or damaging to the narrative for the sake of marketing, easily causing a backlash against the brand if audiences feel offended. But, of course, in these cases when the brand is used prominently but sought out by the creative team instead of forced on them for marketing reasons, these problems are less likely to surface. For more in the differences in product placement and product integration, see this post from May.
The Wikipedia page for Cast Away states, "At the time of the movie's release, Wilson Sporting Goods launched its own joint promotion centered around the fact that one of its products was 'co-starring' with Tom Hanks."
Maynard and Scala's piece traces the history of product placement back to the successful Reese's Pieces E.T. example, which was not initially paid but reportedly led to a 65% increase in sales and "succeeded in reinvigorating the brand."
The authors look into some influential academic and marketing studies on product placement and the balance between the artistic product and marketing features of product placement. The authors conclude, "Wilson the Volleyball offers perhaps a new paradigm in the relationship between brands and movie plots" and find that, even though the decision was an artistic one, that it will likely be another milestone precedent, much like the E.T. example has been.
I think there is another important lesson here, continually implied by the authors but not the major focus of the article. The product integration here, although substantial, was memorable because it was organic. This was not thrust on the writing team but was instead a way for them to bolster the authenticity of their storyline, as a Wilson ball becomes a character when Tom Hanks' character bonds with this closer and closer. That emotional attachment and narrative function makes this a version of product integration that does not offend the audience's intelligence and is certainly one of the most important films in recent history to examine in this regard.
For anyone interested in these product placement questions, Maynard and Scala's research is illuminating.