Wouldn’t it be great to have one weekend where you didn’t have to do anything? One weekend where you could run down to your local Kwik-E-Mart and pick up a copy of the Daily Planet, a case of Duff Beer, and a big king sized bag of Cheesey Poofs. How relaxing does that sound? But what? That’s impossible, those brands don’t actually exist.
True, those brands don’t exist. Not yet at least. However, if you subscribe to the somewhat recent phenomena of reverse product placement, those brands may soon become a reality. Suzanne Vranica’s November 28, 2011 Wall Street Journal article explains the concept of reverse product placement in detail and profiles one mega-chain’s adaptation of it in its online business. Staples, Inc., real life office supply company, has licensed the brand Dunder Mifflin Paper Company from NBC Universal. For the past eight years Dunder Mifflin has been a successful, albeit fictional, paper company in the NBC series, The Office. The size of The Office’s audience, and the popularity of the show, has created a strong brand within a brand. Dunder Mifflin is nearly as synonymous with paper production as many real life paper companies. The value of this already established brand may have a price tag, but if proven successful in its paper sales, to Staples, it may be priceless.
Product placement as a practice has been around for ages. Stephen Spielberg made Reese’s Pieces the candy of choice for friendly alien visitors in E.T., Jerry Seinfeld and Cosmo Kramer showed us why Junior Mints should never be allowed in operating rooms, and in Back to the Future II, the McFly’s showed us that soon anyone would be able to hydrate their very own Pizza Hut pizza.
Product placement has proven itself as one of the most effective methods of promoting a brand. Season two of the CBS Show, Survivor, featured six product placement ads for Doritos chips. The Doritos ads were so successful in season two, that they have since become a central component of all prize episodes of Survivor. Reverse product placement though, is not nearly as established and poses some interesting areas of concern for those involved in the legal aspects of advertising.
Paramount among the legal concerns for reverse product placement is the protection of intellectual property. Fictional brands such as Acme (Looney Toons), Mooby’s (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Dogma, Mall Rats II), and Wayne Enterprises (Batman) are all up for grabs as previously established brands. These fictional brands may already have associated theme songs, jingles, trademarks, copy, slogans, or even certain trade secrets. Each one of these things will need to be considered and valued when licensing these fictional brands to non-fiction retailers. Assigning a dollar value to a fictional company may be more of a challenge than one would assume.
The obvious benefit for retailers is in the promotion cost. To launch a new brand, retailers typically risk millions of dollars in advertising money to promote awareness of the brand to a specific audience. With a reverse product placement, retailers are able to purchase a brand that already has awareness with the target audience and potentially a considerable amount of good will as well. Retailers are able to do this all without risking enormous amounts of upfront advertising investment.
While reverse product placement is a relatively new concept, it is certainly not untested. In 2007, coinciding with the release of the Simpsons movie, 7-11 converted twelve of its national stores into Kwik-E-Marts selling squishees, Buzz Cola, and Krusty-O’s. Another movie, the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, involved intense marketing collaboration with Nestle Chocolate launching a golden ticket Wonka chocolate bar. Finally, Cap Candy has licensed Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans from the Harry Potter franchise.
The advantages of reverse product placement are immeasurable. Launching brands that have already been tried and tested in fiction is an efficient way for a retailer to launch a new product, while at the same time affording the creator the opportunity to license his or her product for real life production. One area to pay attention to in the years ahead, and an area that is certain to keep intellectual property lawyers busy, is product placement and reverse product placement in video games. As product placement in virtual worlds become more and more commonplace, retailers are likely to begin creating and testing fictional brands in virtual worlds prior to their real life launch. Blurring the line between virtual and real worlds will require advertising lawyers to continue developing innovative strategies for licensing and protecting their brands.
 Great Scott! Dunder Mifflin Morphs Into Real-Life Brand of Copy Paper. Vranica, Suzanne, The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2011