January 31, 2007
Reverse Product Placement and C3 Members' Ideas in the Popular Press

Anyone see the C3-inspired article by Todd Wasserman with BrandWeek on reverse product placement this week, a process through which brands from a fictional world are made available as products in the "real world." The article stems from research from two of our affiliate research, Ilya Vedrashko and David Edery. The discussion of reverse product placement, particularly in games, has been a focus here at C3 throughout our formative years, as the quotes from Edery and Vedrashko indicate.

Edery, who now works for Microsoft's Xbox division and who has written about the idea of reverse product placement for Harvard Business Review, while Vedrashko is an emerging media strategies for Hill, Holiday.

The phrase "reverse product placement" is an interesting term to use to label the practice of marketing items out of a narrative world.

The idea of taking something out of a narrative world and making it available in the real world surrounded media marketing from the beginning. Wearing the clothes or buying the brands that one sees on screen or even reads in a book, as my colleague Ivan Askwith is fond of reminding everyone, stretches back to the work of Charles Dickens, and that desire to buy the brands of your favorite character is the drive behind product placement.

But this particular process looks beyond traditional marketing practices and into finding products in the fictional world that are then made available outside that world. In terms of storytelling practices, I've written before about narrative elements of a story that then appear outside that story. That process is what has driven transmedia storytelling, whether we're talking about a novel from the narrative world that fans are then given the chance to read as an extension of the narrative (such as Oakdale Confidential from As the World Turns and Bad Twin from Lost); a music album organized on a fictional show that then launches as an actual album (such as the Friends with Benefit album from One Tree Hill); an online newspaper or tabloid from a fictional world (such as DC Comics' project with its comic series 52, Tabloid Truth from Passions, or Springfield Burns from Guiding Light; a blog from the fictional world (such as with the ill-conceived DeFaker from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or Luke Snyder's blog from As the World Turns); or using a Web site itself to be part of the fictional world (such as the WWE Web site, as I've written about here and here.)

But this isn't about other media products coming out of the fictional world but rather about branded commodities that first get popularized in a fictional work and then move out. For instance, the restaurant chain Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a restaurant I've visited myself that comes straight out of Forrest Gump; a Willie Wonka candy product from Nestle; and Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans from Harry Potter, (as well as Potion, a drink launched from the game Final Fantasy.

The presumption of the article is that games are perhaps the best launching pad for these brands to enter real life, but I think all media forms are strong grounds for this type of thinking. However, "reverse product placement" works much the same as "product placement." It's only going to work if fans find it to be a creative extension of the property rather than mere capitalist exploitation.

As I wrote about advertising itself back in December, to paraphrase Techdirt, "people might not hate all advertising...just bad advertising." I think the same will be true with reverse product placement. Thoughtless marketing will equal mass exploitation and turn fans off, while creative strategies could lead to profitable new brands launched from the success of media fan communities.

Thanks to Grant McCracken for alerting me to the article.