Product placement now a fine science

When Clark Gable stripped off his shirt and showed a bare chest in “It Happened One Night,” men’s undershirt sales tumbled nationwide. Nearly 50 years later, when Richard Gere reached for Armani to cover his “American Gigolo” nakedness, the designer’s sales reached fever pitch.

From the copycat-buying spurred by Lucy Ricardo’s demure 1950s dresses to the recent boost Hush Puppies got from “Forrest Gump,” clothes with bit parts in film and television have turned into stars at the checkout stand. No surprise then, with millions of dollars in retail sales at stake, that product placement has grown from a casual business practice to a science.

“In the old days, you’d have agencies and representatives who would go to the movie industry, to the prop masters and wardrobers on the sets and work something out,” says Michael Nyman, of Bragman, Nyman and Cafarelli Public Relations. “Now, it’s a lot more organized and scientific than it used to be. It’s a very focused business.”

Nyman’s clients, like Hush Puppies, Bloomingdales or The Diamond Information Center, outline their goals and requirements. The agency then finds appropriate placement for the items.

“Our clients let us know as much as possible about their products, and we align them with films that further their messages,” Nyman says. “We look for the demographic they want to attract. If we can extend it and do some sort of promotion as well, then that’s fabulous too.”

Although profitable for all parties involved, product placement rarely involves huge sums of money, says Norm Marshall, of Norm Marshall and Associates, a large and successful product placement company in Los Angeles.

Payola laws crafted as a result of the quiz show scandals of the 1940s seriously curtail product placement on television. Designers can donate clothes in exchange for acknowledgment in the show’s end credits. Film companies, always working to come in under budget, are often happy to trade space in a film’s credits for the $100,000 their action hero’s 50 tuxedos would have cost.

“It’s a quid pro quo kind of thing,” Marshall says. “I’m not saying that money doesn’t change hands, but it’s not the vast sums you hear about. To come up with $100,000 for Tom Cruise to drive your car is something even the companies with the biggest budgets have to think twice about.”

Many fashion houses find themselves courted by filmmakers. Calvin Klein provided Nicole Kidman’s clothes for “The Peacemaker,” as well as Kristin Scott Thomas’ wardrobe for “The Horse Whisperer.”

At Donna Karan, staffers receive scripts each week, in hopes the fashion giant will dress the film.

“We get scripts every day — it’s amazing how much stuff comes in,” says Anna DeLuca, director of women’s collections at Donna Karan.

Presently, Donna Karan’s clothes make up Gwyneth Paltrow’s wardrobe in “Great Expectations,” dress Christian Slater in “A Very Bad Thing,” and Ryan O’Neal in “An Alan Smithee Film.”

“It’s another vehicle, and Donna feels it can be a very positive thing,” says Patti Cohen, senior vice president of communications. “From a marketing standpoint, it’s an opportunity for brand awareness. You can’t put a dollar amount on it how it increases sales, because it’s not just about a page in a magazine or editorial layout.”

Susan Sherman, vice president of product placement at 20th Century Fox, says both style and savings guide her decisions.

“The advantage for us is to be able to dress the characters in a believable way and not have to spend the money,” Sherman says. “A lot of times we’ll get the support the manufacturer and they’ll make things in fabrics not the store, or they’ll make things for men like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who need some things done custom.”

Actors like Wendie Malick, who plays a fashion model-turned editor in NBC’s “Just Shoot Me,” find designer clothes help define the character.

“Emanuel Ungaro has started to watch the show and give few pieces, and that’s great, because someone watching the show would think, yeah, she’d definitely wear something like that,” Malick says.

Long after a TV show is in reruns or a film has gone to video, the financial windfall continues, public relations executive Nyman said.

“Maybe the audience can’t afford the dresses or cars or jewelry they see in the movie, but they can afford something from the designer’s or manufacturer’s less expensive line, Nyman says. “They’ll buy a belt, or a tee shirt, or a scarf, and feel they have a piece of the experience. And 15 years from now, maybe they can afford the more expensive line. Companies understand this. Corporate America has realized, entertainment sells.”

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