If you really think about it, when watching television, you have product placement all the time. —Jay Chiat
Sitting here trying to catch up on some news articles I missed over the weekend, I came across an article in the Media section of the New YorkTimes looking at how advertising has changed in a digital age. What caught my attention was all the talk about how an old ad trick, product placement, is making more sense than ever in content that is shown on multiple platforms. Creating separate content for every available platform is expensive, but if the brand is embedded in someone else’s content, the onus and cost for multi-platform delivery falls to someone else. This works for the brand not only in terms of saving money (which it may or may not do), but extending their reach to content viewers who may not have been familiar with the brand.
You’ve been watching this happen on television and the movies from the moment either began. Big brands, especially tobacco companies, were significant sponsors of early television because it put their name in front of people who weren’t consumers of their product. Brands became “household names” not so much because of the quality of the product but because of their association with someone’s favorite TV program. As media has evolved, we now see that same product placement being equally important to digital media, especially those that run on social media platforms.
Photographers have utilized product placement before as well, though they may not have thought of it in those terms specifically, and they probably didn’t get paid for the placement. When we’re doing portfolio work, or taking pictures that are not for a specific client, we often approach designers and boutique owners about borrowing wardrobe. This allows our photographs to look more professionally styled (rather than depending on what the model is carrying in her bag) and, in some cases, gives the designer or boutique a touch of free publicity. In an environment where cash isn’t in abundance, the system sort of works. Kind of. Maybe.
Let’s take the pictures in this article, for example. The wardrobe is courtesy of local designer Shiela Ferguson, whose Jealousy Jane brand is reasonably well-known in the local market. Christopher Thompson did the hair and makeup. By mentioning them here, they both, ostensibly, receive some advertising benefit from being included in the photograph. That’s assuming the people viewing the picture are in the market for a new couture gown or want to drive to Atlanta, Indiana to have their makeup done.
Consider how we might have made this photo different, though. What if the models had been holding a branded drink, with the label prominently showing? Would the image have been more interesting if they had been eating menu items from a popular fast food chain? Perhaps the image would have taken on a different tone had they been giving the dog branded treats.
Traditionally, I wouldn’t have considered such a move because using branded items, especially if the brand name and/or logo is prominently visible, can lead to some significant legal problems. Brands spend a lot of money on their image and don’t want anyone representing them in a way contrary to the brand’s message. Trademark infringement can be costly if photographers aren’t careful about what they’re doing.
In today’s environment, however, there might be an opportunity for enterprising photographers to do something unheard of: make money by selling product placement in their portfolio images! Why not? Products in photographs make them more interesting, more relatable, and make the story come alive to a larger audience. Funds from product placement can then be used for other things such as set construction and hiring models that match the brand message.
Of course, you know there are challenges to such an approach. First and foremost, the photographer has to be able to demonstrate a quality portfolio that appeals to the brand they’re approaching. No one wants to pay for shitty images, nor do they want their products associated with those images. One can hardly blame them.
Second in line is going to be whether the photographer can demonstrate value in his product. In today’s marketing game, this is where numbers matter. How many followers does one have not only on Facebook and Twitter, but Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, and Periscope? The higher each of those numbers are, the more likely a brand might be interested in placing their products in an image. Know that they’re also going to look at how many likes and shares previous images have received.
A photographer would need to have the ability to deliver an audience the brand wants. If one is primarily doing pet photography, approaching your local Coca-Cola bottler probably isn’t going to work. Tag Hauer may be a tough sell if one plans on shooting farm animals. Being able to match your audience with that of a brand is critical, which means you need to know who is your audience. Look beyond your friends and find out who really pays attention to your work.
Being able to measure results is going to be important as well. Marketing departments have a strange fetish for numbers and if they do agree to pay for product placement they’re going to want to know that you delivered the number of eyeballs you promised. If you don’t, they won’t likely pay for placement again and, especially if you don’t even come close, they might demand a refund. That means you need some method for compiling and reporting viewer statistics. There are a variety of ways to do so, especially if you are paying for sponsored content on Facebook or Snapchat, both of whom have great backend analytics as for not only how many eyeballs but where in the world they were, how old they were, their gender, and even whether they later visited the brand’s Facebook or Snapchat.
Yes, that is a lot of work and no, it’s not going to be an option for someone who asks a model to shoot and doesn’t plan a concept until she walks through the door. If a photographer wants to actually make money off their portfolio, they have to think more like Caty Burgess, Senior VP for media strategies at the CW network, who asked in that network’s upfronts, “Is the question, ‘What is an ad?’ or ‘What isn’t an ad?'”
Almost anything we create with a camera has the ability to be an ad, even art nudes. We have the potential to change the paradigm in our favor. Think about it and consider changing your strategy.