You Ought To Be In Pictures

Product placement isn't only for the big guys. Find out what's cooking and offer to help

Fans of Robert Redford's new film, The Horse Whisperer, may gush over the breathtaking vistas of Montana or Redford's passionate love scenes. But for John Marriott, the high point comes when the camera lingers on a computer screen, starting a 30-second sequence featuring his company's Web site, "Part of the reason we bought the company was the tremendous exposure it was going to get in this movie," says Marriott, who became president and co-owner of LLC, a five-person Londonderry (N.H.) business, last December.

That half-minute of make-believe is making a real difference for EquiSearch, which lists horses, equipment, and farms for sale worldwide and provides all sorts of information for equestrians. Not only is traffic on the site up about 40% since early May but ad revenues jumped over 400% from March to April alone, sparked by the movie connection. (It doesn't hurt that the movie's official Web site offers a link to EquiSearch's site.)

Talk about star power. As EquiSearch has seen, product placement--getting a business or product into the plot or onto the set of a movie or TV show--can help catapult a company out of obscurity. After Tom Cruise prominently sipped the Jamaican brew Red Stripe in The Firm, for example, sales increased 50%, the company says. "You can't get any more powerful exposure--except maybe word from a friend who swears by a product," says Robert J. Thomas, a marketing professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

Ever since that lovable alien E.T. gobbled up Reese's Pieces in 1982, big consumer-products companies have included placement in their marketing arsenal. While they sometimes pay six figures for choice spots, small companies on shoestring budgets can play, too. How is that possible? Your product or business might lend local color or fill a specific need. If you've any doubt that that's valuable publicity, consider how Seinfeld turned small businesses such as Love Discount Stores, H&H Bagels, and Tom's Restaurant into stars.

How much does placement cost? If you do it yourself, expenses might be just the merchandise, phone calls, and postage. Your investment of time, however, can be huge, so it can be expedient to use an agency. Typically, they will charge as little as $500 for a one-time placement to $20,000 for a guaranteed number of placements over a year.

RAM Sports Inc. in Denver, with $10 million in sales and 50 employees, spends up to 20% of its $250,000 marketing budget to place Classic-brand sport balls, which compete with Wilson and Spalding. Its agency has won placements in Flubber, He Got Game, and other films. RAM co-owner and CFO Randy Jones says: "When we have an exposure, our phone rings off the hook."

What if you don't have an agent? Having an ear to the ground helps. For months, EquiSearch founder Kristine Griscom had heard buzz about The Horse Whisperer in equestrian circles and learned through a friend that Touchstone Pictures needed an equine consultant on the set. Griscom--who has since sold her stake in EquiSearch and is its director of site development--eagerly became its adviser. Later, when Touchstone decided its female protagonist should go online and read about the horse trainer (Redford) on the Web, Griscom offered, providing for free the fictional content and graphics. Altogether, says Griscom: "I've spent more than a hundred hours on this, but it's absolutely worth it because horse people are very culty people."

Good fortune, friend-of-a-friend connections, and a niche product helped in EquiSearch's case. But anyone who is alert and persistent can network their way in, too. Start by understanding your target venues. "Pick shows you like and understand and that your customers might see," advises Linda Demeduk, production coordinator for NBC's hit sitcom Mad About You.

FREE AND FAST. To keep abreast of upcoming productions, scan local newspapers and the entertainment trades, and call your state film-promotion office. (More and more cities have one, too.) Your product might lend a strong historical or local flavor to a production where it matters. You may have to phone dozens of studios and production companies to make the right connections (table). Once you do, be ready to guarantee a free, timely supply of your wares. "If there's a fireplace set and they need a fireplace screen and yours is available, it's in," says Debbie Hemela, publisher of Debbie's Book, a Los Angeles-based set-decorating catalog.

Spreading your name around Tinseltown helps, too. Magnetic Poetry, a $6 million Minneapolis company with 25 employees, donated 1,500 of its magnetic word kits to fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, who passed them out to her Hollywood pals. That helped land the Scrabble-like words on numerous movie and TV sets, including the movie Conspiracy Theory, with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts.

In Denver, scrappy Pumpkin Masters Inc., a 16-employee company that sells jack o'lantern carving kits, has doggedly exploited its Halloween niche. It works without an agent to get its tools--and, more often, the pumpkins carved with them--onto dozens of TV and movie sets. Marketing staffer Cheryl Stoughton scoured Variety to learn of upcoming productions, took out a $200 ad in Debbie's Book, and spent hundreds of hours phoning studios and following up with press kits. Now, she says: "The studios are coming to us." Once Pumpkin Masters got its pumpkins onto Roseanne and other shows, Stoughton hyped the connection at Halloween trade shows and subsequently won orders from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other chains.

Not everyone is cut out for self-promotion, which is why some turn to agents. Agencies offer Hollywood connections and a staff of script-screeners who are on the lookout for good placement opportunities. Also, they are experienced at securing agreements to ensure placement in wholesome contexts.

UNPLEASANT SURPRISE? Whatever the approach, be prepared for setbacks. Your product could end up on the cutting room floor or be barely noticeable onscreen. And if you use an agency, choose carefully. Ask for references and make sure they document placements well. And remember: Your placement could make you cringe. Barry C. Levin, president of Snak King Corp. in City of Industry, Calif., recalls how in one film, "a couple of guys in a machine-gun battle flew through our racks in a pool of blood."

If you do score a choice placement, don't drop the ball. Followup can make the placement work for you long after the spotlight fades--even if the screen time was minimal. Try a flashy display at your next trade show, the way Pumpkin Masters did, use a still shot in your brochure, or brag about it to the press.

As David Kappell, president and founder of Magnetic Poetry, has learned, one glimpse isn't enough--even on Mel Gibson's fridge. "They say people have to have seven exposures before making a buying decision," says Kappell, "and that's what I'm working on." Place a product today, and if you're lucky, maybe tomorrow, someone will remember. And if not--well, that's show biz.