Nancie Tear revs up her computer in a small meeting room at her Lions Gate movie studio office. Dressed all in black, hair pulled back, she turns up the volume as a short compilation of clips from the TV show 24 plays onscreen. Kiefer Sutherland marches into a dank-looking basement and heads to a lone desk, bending over a computer bearing an Alienware logo. “They’ve got a missile,” he says, distraught. All the shots linger on the computer, a sleek silver-and-black laptop. Sutherland stands next to the laptop, while his accomplice sits at the desk. “Can you hear me?” he asks his team, assembled elsewhere. “I’m looking at a live feed of the warhead!”
Tear, co-founder and creative director of Vancouver-based PropStar Placements, watches proudly–after all, she placed the computer on the 24 set for her client, Miami-based Alienware (now owned by Dell). She’s placed everything from gardening products to online search engines on popular TV shows and movies, and recently landed her biggest deal yet–effective immediately, PropStar will handle all of Coke’s Canadian placements. “This is the largest consumer packaged-goods company we’d ever want to get,” she says. “It’s such a huge deal for us.”
Coke is the latest addition to Tear’s roster of about 10 clients, and the past six years have been busy. When asked if every product on a TV show or movie is placed, Tear says there’s no doubt. “Everything,” she says. Even so-called reality shows? “Nothing is a reality. Nothing is an accident. Everything’s premeditated.”
Such premeditation is big business. According to PQ Media, a custom media-research firm based in Stamford, Conn., the value of product placement reached a record high of US$3.46 billion in 2004. They expect it to reach US$4.24 billion in 2005, and that’s just in the U.S. With the advent of ad-skipping technologies like TiVo, companies are looking for new ways to reach consumers, and product placement is one clear option.
“It’s important to keep your brand in front of people, and this is one of the best ways to do that,” says Steve Young. Young is the national marketing manager for Kitchener-based MTD Canada, which makes an array of lawn-care products such as trimmers and blowers. So far, Tear has placed MTD’s products on shows like ER and Godiva’s, as well as John Whitesell’s recent film Big Momma’s House 2, starring Martin Lawrence. Young has been using Tear’s services for a year. “Nancie has all the connections in Hollywood. For the price we pay for her, it’s very cost effective.”
Companies typically sign with PropStar for a two-year campaign costing from $40,000. Considering a standard 30-second ad spot costs US$350,000 for just one run during an episode that airs in the U.S. alone, Tear’s fees are minimal. Tear also suggests clients add a small paid placement budget (from $10,000) which gives PropStar the ability to pay productions to ensure a product is included in a shot. Paid placements, on average, can run anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, and can even get up to half a million dollars for comprehensive packages. (With free, negotiated placements, there is a chance a scene may be cut. Tough luck if your product is in that scene.) Still, most PropStar clients “have a mandate of not paying for placements, because they know that we can achieve placement with no budget,” Tear says. “We’re very hard negotiators.”
Clients confirm this. “Nancie’s very good. She’s very attentive, and every now and then bullies the hell out of me to get my ass in gear, which is what I need,” says Simon Gwatkin, vice-president of strategic marketing for Ottawa-based Mitel. Thanks to Tear, Mitel phones dominate the TV show ER, as PropStar co-ordinated a full working installation on set. The phones are also on shows like CSI and Boston Legal. In the past year, PropStar has counted well over 2,000 seconds of quality Mitel placements on ER. Considering the cost of a 30-second spot, you could say that Mitel has received more than US$20 million in advertising through product placement on ER alone. That doesn’t even count exposure in markets outside the U.S., and the number of times a show is rerun. “I get a lot of e-mails from Europe, even Australia, [from people] saying ‘I saw your phone,'” says Gwatkin.
Tear, 38, represents both Canadian and American companies–the split is about half and half–and she places their goods in productions around the world. She recently sent Mitel phones to the Basic Instinct 2 set in England, as well as D-Link wireless technology to a new Russell Crowe movie being shot in France. The job requires constant communication, and a lot of travel. From her offices at Lions Gate, she and her team of six are in daily contact with the major Canadian and U.S. networks and studios, getting scripts ahead of time, so they know what’s coming through the pipeline in the coming months. Even before a project is approved, they’re all over it, pitching placements on behalf of their clients. They even fly to network studios to give product demonstrations.
Tear says within the space of a year they can be working on anywhere from 50 to 100 productions for one client alone. High volume ensures clients see placements as soon as possible, which is important given long lead times on productions. For television, she says it can take between six weeks and six months to see the placement; for feature films, between 10 and 18 months. “You have to have great patience,” says Young. Tear says they do a lot of television placements because of the quicker turnaround. “The benefit [of placements] is also the longevity, because once you’re there, you’re there for life,” she says. “And you never have to pay extra for reruns.”
Tear understands the entertainment world well. She grew up in Guelph, Ont., and moved to Toronto to attend the International Academy of Design and Technology, indulging her interest in fashion and marketing. Upon graduation, she worked for Reckitt & Coleman, a packaged-goods company. After a few years, Tear wanted to learn more about marketing “from the masters, who are typically in New York,” and enrolled at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, again in marketing; while at school, she did publicity for MCA Universal in New York. After graduating in 1994, she moved to England to do promotions for Disney. On moving to Vancouver in 1998, Tear found there isn’t much of a market for promoting entertainment in Canada. She started PropStar about six years ago in response to the growing opportunity with product placement.
Product placement itself is not new. People really started to take notice with the 1982 movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. When Reese’s Pieces made its film debut as E.T.’s favourite candy, sales of Reese’s soared, and product placement took off. Since then, critics have said placement is sneaky, verging on unethical. “There have always been people that take that argument,” says Paul Salmon, who teaches English and film courses at the University of Guelph. “I wouldn’t call it unethical. If you think it manipulates the viewer, then it’s unethical. But films themselves are manipulative. It’s really a case of viewers needing to be conscious of what they are watching.”
According to Tear, the naysayers have changed their tune. “Suddenly everyone’s recognizing product placement as the new way to reach consumers,” she says. “The 30-second spot is dead.”
To outwit technologies like TiVo, advertising companies are now making 27-second or 18-second spots. But as soon as a viewer realizes it’s a commercial, Tear says, he or she will “just zap through it.” “It’s not really happening,” says Tear. “What is going to happen is the networks are really going to have to look at other ways of funding programming.”
The way Tear sees it, placement enables storytelling. “If you have a show where you have a carton of milk that says ‘Milk,’ that takes you out of the story, because now you know that what you’re watching is a set. It’s fake,” she explains. When products are placed as they would be in real life, nothing stands out. Products also do a quick job of conveying information about a character. A character wearing a Rolex, for example, indicates that character is wealthy.
Sometimes product placement also shapes the story. Companies often pay studios to have their product or brand integrated into the show’s storyline. How much of what we watch on television is influenced? “It’s increasing,” Tear says. “But at the end of the day, there’s a limit to what people will watch.” She explains that bad placement often goes hand in hand with bad storytelling, in which case, audiences will vote with their feet.
“Placement is a unique way to get your product in front of a captive audience,” affirms Jon Nolz, director of product marketing for info-space for Seattle-based Dogpile, the Internet search engine. Tear has placed Dogpile on shows like Made in America and Growing up Gotti. In the latter, a scene shows the mother at the family computer, using Dogpile to search for her Italian grandfather’s roots once he landed in the U.S. Dogpile is only interested in being placed if their logo is visible, and if it shows a full search, meaning the search term as well as the results. (In this scene, the search is successful–Gotti finds what she’s looking for.) All Tear’s clients say product placement is a small portion of their advertising budget, making it a cost-effective way to reach elusive consumers.
Mitel executive Gwatkin says they have made sales to people who have seen the placed phones, but that’s not necessarily the point. “It was designed not to just be a sponsorship,” he says, “but to make our employees and customers feel good about seeing our phones on a show or a movie. We got good coverage and it became viral. Everyone was e-mailing, saying, ‘Have you seen this show or movie?'”
Tear and her team also offer PR, marketing, promotions, celebrity endorsements, and special-events services to capitalize on the feel-good component of placements. In the coming year, they’ll focus on cementing those services so clients have a one-stop shop in PropStar. As she discusses the company’s future in the meeting room, she’s surrounded by work paraphernalia–a purple Dyson vacuum cleaner, framed posters of The Sopranos actors (she dresses James Gandolfini with client Hartmarx), and that bright green, high-performance laptop she uses to show clips with her placements. It’s an Alienware computer, of course. Remember, nothing is an accident–if you’re seeing it, chances are Tear put it there.