Moviegoers and Product Placement
Moviegoers are greeted with a deluge of previews and advertisements before a feature film begins. And unbeknownst to some viewers, more advertisements are interspersed throughout the show. The product placements are sometimes subtle—a Mac laptop perched on a desk—and sometimes not—a scene in Starbucks, or a character lauding the taste of Coca-Cola.
But what impact does this abundance of advertising have on movie watchers’ experience? Using one of Kogod’s newest assets, an eyetracking lab, Assistant Professor Cristel Russell found out.
The key equipment arrived at American University in summer 2012, and was put to use last year in Russell’s study.
Though modest in size, the eyetracking unit is far from unassuming.
The camera, which looks something like a horror-movie version of orthodontic headgear, tracks subjects’ pupils as they look at a computer screen.
Never before have researchers been able to prove whether viewers actually saw product placements in movies or which part of an advertisement caught their attention.
Russell, who has studied product placement for years, is not aware of any research on the topic that used eyetracking technology.
With its help, what used to be guesswork can now be proved objectively.
“We now have a measure that reliably and scientifically tells us how many milliseconds people look at a brand on the screen,” Russell said. “Now we have evidence that people do look at product place- ments, and how much they do and why they do. It’s really meaningful.”
The venture is also interdisciplinary: psychology PhD students help run the business school’s lab.
“It really bridges what we do in Kogod with what we do in psychology,” Russell said. “It’s a resource that fits well within the bigger framework.”
Putting the new technology to work, Russell found that viewers who were exposed to advertisements before a television show were more likely to fixate on product placements in the episode than those who were not.
The products shown in the episode were not the same products advertised beforehand; thus, showing any ads curtailed enjoyment.
The findings confirmed the results from the second study in her project, in which she surveyed real moviegoers in a cinema about their experience—after they watched ads and previews, just previews, or nothing before a feature film.
The survey found that viewers who watched advertisements before the show reported lower enjoyment not just of the movie but of concessions as well.
The films—comedy Due Date and action comedy Red—both had multiple product placements and celebrity casts. Regardless of the film and show time, viewers who watched previews enjoyed the movie less than those who didn’t, and viewers who saw previews and ads enjoyed the film least of all.
Advertisements before a show appear to activate consumers’ use of persuasion knowledge, bringing their understanding of persuasive tactics to the forefront of their minds.
This activation means viewers are more likely to pay attention to even subtle product placement in the program that follows, as product placements are, after all, a form of advertising.
“Seeing commercials before a show puts you in a frame of mind that there may be messages in a film that are meant to persuade you, so you pay more attention to the product placement,” Russell said.
With the brain on the lookout for marketing tactics, a viewer’s enjoyment of the program falls. These findings counteract the “any publicity is good publicity” maxim.
The research offers a lesson to advertisers, who regularly bundle product placements with traditional marketing before a film: Ads are not just irritating, they can actually harm a viewers’ experience.
“Our work suggests that seeing the same brand both advertised and placed within the content of the subsequent program might further prompt consumers’ skepticism,” the researchers wrote.
Marketers must be conscious of the link between preshow commercials and those in the film itself, they cautioned, or else viewer enjoyment will falter.
In an age of dwindling movie theater attendance, the study also offers a warning for theater owners, as advertisements dimmed viewers’ enjoyment of even the popcorn and candy.
But the study applies to more than just the silver screen.
Popular television and movie website Hulu plays advertisements before and between segments of shows. Commercials often precede videos on news websites.
The uses of Kogod’s eyetracking technology also extend well beyond the entertainment industry.
“The eyetracking lab is a resource that is avail- able to all faculty and is something that most universities are really interested in. Having one really sets us apart,” Russell said, noting that the lab is not only attractive, but also valuable.
She and colleagues in the marketing department plan to use the lab for at least two more studies this year.
But researchers across the university could use such technology to study what consumers see when they look at nutrition labels, or which dangers drivers notice while steering a car down a street, for example.
The eyetracking unit supplements existing research and offers avenues for more, and different, analyses.
“The equipment can answer some new questions that we haven’t been able to tackle without this technology,” Russell said.
“Ad Exposure Before Entertainment Content Activates,” Cristel A. Russell, Dale W. Russell, and Andrea C. Morales, is currently under review.