December 22, 2009
Up in the Air: Product placement done right

A few weeks ago I saw Up in the Air, the new film directed by Jason Reitman. It's a great movie, worthy of the hype it's been getting, but I was most intrigued not by the acting or the topical themes, but by the very obvious product placement from Hilton hotels and American Airlines.

In fact, Hilton and American are more than just product placements in Up in the Air. According to a recent article in Advertising Age, Hilton and American Airlines are integrated-marketing partners for the film. This allows the film to promote the brands and vice versa: both Hilton and American are currently running sweepstakes related to the film and Up in the Air's website has a prominent section devoted to its partners.

This "partnership" is different from traditional product placement. Instead of paying for the opportunity to be featured in the film, Hilton and American allowed Reitman and his crew to film in Hilton Hotels and American Airlines terminals and airplanes. These partnerships saved a ton of money--it would have been expensive for the filmmakers to rent sets and pay fees for the locations that Hilton and American donated.

The deal in itself is interesting since most product placement is done in exchange for money, not filming locations, but more interesting is what it allowed Reitman to do. Up in the Air is a rare example of product placement done well. Hilton and American are featured prominently in the film, but unlike much of the product placement I've seen lately, their presence makes sense in the context of the story and even enhances the film's credibility. The characters in Up in the Air inhabit a world that resembles ours--and like real people, their lives are filled with brands. In fact, as a frequent traveler, George Clooney's character is probably more concerned with brand loyalty than the average person.

I have recently seen a lot of obtrusive product placement, especially on television. People supposedly worry that the DVR signals the end of advertiser-supported television. The fear is that since viewers can easily fast-forward through commercials, no one will be willing to pay for advertising. I don't believe that commercials are going away any time soon, but I do believe that product placement will be a more important revenue stream for television, film, and video game production as digital business models find their footing. Those looking to use product placement could learn a lot from Up in the Air. This film succeeds because product placement is allowed to serve the story rather than distract from it.