Iowa State journalism professor's product placement research source of Turner Classic Movies March line-up

AMES, Iowa -- In the 1998 romantic comedy, "You've Got Mail," three companies struck celluloid gold - America Online (AOL), Macintosh computers, and Lincoln Continental. Product placement -- the subtle and not-so-subtle use of brand-name items as movie props -- has become big business.

The cable network Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has used product placement as a March film package theme. The 12 movies selected were chosen using the research of Jay Newell, an assistant professor in Iowa State University's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication.

"What's noteworthy about the classic movies on TCM is the subtlety of product placement," Newell said. "The current trend is for more visible placements. Makers of classic films usually seemed to be more reserved in the appearances of brands."

The movies will be shown on Fridays beginning March 4.

The movies to be featured are: "Scarface," "Urban Cowboy," "Gold Diggers of 1935," "A Night at the Ritz," "You'll Never Get Rich," "That Uncertain Feeling," "Love Affair," "Father of the Bride," "The Seven Year Itch," "Three Guys Named Mike," "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Superman II."

In his research, Newell said he first established a connection between a filmmaker and product manufacturer. That meant screening films, then digging through the records of production companies in Hollywood for product placement contracts and memos. The primary source was the Margaret Herrick Library, an archive operated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Oscars.

While many Americans believe movie product placement was born when a little boy made an extra-terrestrial friend by laying a trail of Reese's Pieces in "E.T.," Newell said it can be traced back to 1896, when Lever Brothers' Sunlight soap appeared in multiple films distributed throughout the world.

"Another early product placement was in the movie 'Love Happy,' which was the Marx Brothers last film and Marilyn Monroe's first," Newell said. "Chico Marx, as producer of the movie, literally sold a chase sequence where Harpo is chased by the bad guys atop Times Square, with companies' signs featured prominently."

In the comedy classic "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," Coca-Cola appears in multiple sequences, such as a plane flying through a Coke billboard and Jonathan Winters tearing apart a gas station using a Coke cooler.

The movie "Urban Cowboy" demonstrates the sophistication of product placement in 1980.

"You'll note the Lone Star longneck bottle displayed by John Travolta," Newell said. "Other more subtle placements include Travolta's cowboy hat and belt buckle. At that point, product placement was extremely sophisticated. The producers had an agreement with Budweiser, which promoted the movie in its advertisements."

Newell said product placement is remarkable when viewed in the context of how art and commerce intersect in society.

"Product placement is interesting, not only as a critical aspect of the film itself, but as a reflection of how movies mirror the saturation of culture by advertising," he said.

Newell used to create marketing and promotional campaigns for Turner Broadcasting's CNN and TNT networks. Since 2003, he has taught advertising and mass media at Iowa State.

Newell said he uses his product placement research to enhance his media planning and advertising campaigns classes at Iowa State. Students in advertising get an insider's view of how marketers use product placement to draw attention to their products, and how that process has developed.

"My overall research is on media saturation, which is how people surround themselves with mass media, and how marketers take advantage of mass media to envelop individuals with advertising messages," Newell said. "Product placement is an expression of that media saturation."