written by: Lau Hiu Tung, Hailey

Being named the most favorite peanut butter candy in the 1980s, Reese’s Pieces witnessed the “meet-cute” between a lonely boy and his alien friend in the movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Reese’s Piece’s status as the No.1 runaway hit of 1982 not only contributed to a 70% surge in the brand’s monthly sales (Reilly, 2015), but also pioneered the embedded-advertising era. Embedded advertising (i.e. product placement), a marketing technique through which products or brands are embodied into creative works such as TV programs, films or online games, was criticized due to its hidden intent to promote.

It is not difficult to understand why marketers increased their expenditures on embedded advertising by nearly 30% within two years (Statista, 2017). Industry change is one of the determinants. The debut of digital video recorders and ad blockers exacerbated such situation by desensitizing consumer to traditional advertising messages (Kokemuller, n.d.). Since audiences effortlessly skip TV commercials, placing embedded placement in programs innovatively helps bring back the value of advertisement and promotion platforms. Even though such was criticized as an obligated brainwashing tactic, an opinion survey by The Hong Kong Communications Authority shows that half of the respondents accept product placement in free-to-air TV (Hang, 2017). The underlying reason roots in audience’s expectation to improve content quality and enhance competitiveness within the industry, with the revenue of product placement.

From a corporate perspective, embedded advertising enables brands to boost exposure through the popularity of programs (Williams, 2012). Product placement effectively increases brand recognition and recalls attentive audience, especially when the promoted brands are congruent with the storyline. Through connecting programs with brands, audience’s impression on the promoted brands is improved by utilizing the associative network in human cognition (Ireseachnet, 2010). Perceptions towards the character’s personality, story dialogue or emotions are subtly transferred into the placed brands. To illustrate, Bollinger Champagne was associated with 007 James Bond, a sophisticated, quick-witted detective; while Samsung was linked with the meaning of death, violence and technological failure in Jurassic Park. It is vital for marketers to be aware of how audience’s implicit attitudes could be managed during the process of association (Zimmerman, 2013).

While brands should be cautious about their associated content, the best-embedded advertisement should be subtle. Thanks to James Vicary’s experiment on subliminal advertising in 1957, it was proved that desirable outcome could be maximized by audience’s subconscious “awareness” towards a single frame of advertising words (Love, 2011). Although subliminal advertising is now prohibited in certain countries, its underlying principle is still applicable to modern practices. Some says, “The longer and more apparent products are placed, the more advertising message could be conveyed to audience.” This is however just a myth: a flash of words “Eat Popcorn” could already cause a 57.8% increase in popcorn sales (Dylan, 2011). The effectiveness of product placement lies towards its subtle influence. Consequently a tedious embedded advertisement may be treated as intrusive (Kokemuller, n.d.). So, be wise! Stop annoying your customers.

Getting back to the regulation of embedded advertising, the Hong Kong Communications Authority is considering a relaxation on existing rules due to previous survey result. The intriguing point of interest is perhaps: to what extent product placement should be allowed in which kind of programs. The British government prohibited controlled items like alcohol, drugs or even junk foods to be placed in all programs, while political, news or religious programs are not allowed to include any embedded advertisement (HK01, 2017). For South Korea, its government has allowed product placement in exchange of eliminating all commercial breaks (HK01, 2017). It is time for Hong Kong to adjust its regulation by striking a balance between the provision of a more conducive business environment, and the viewing public’s interest.

Fig.1 Reese’s Pieces in movie E.T. The extra-Terrestrial

Fig.2 Bollinger – Favorite champagne of James Bond 007

Fig.3 Product of Samsung in movie Jurassic Park

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