Product placement finding its place in China

Use requires more subtlety with Chinese audiences

SHANGHAI -- Product placement strategies for China’s booming movie business drew a standing room only crowd to the film market’s closing day, on the sidelines of the 13th Shanghai International Film Festival.
Although host to only 10 booths this year -- still tiny next to markets at Hong Kong and Pusan -- SIFFMART managed to get lots of people talking for the second year running with a diverse series of lively, well-moderated and well-attended panel discussions.
While buyers and sellers preferred to meet privately at their hotels, the market forum session Wednesday was a public forum to discuss how to offset film production costs by tapping the bold new consumer habits of China’s swelling middle class.
China’s boxoffice jumped 43% in 2009 and much of its ticket sales of $909 million happened in new shopping malls dependent upon moviegoing foot traffic for impulse buys.
Tomaz Mok, vp of the China practice of U.S. advertising giant McCann Erickson, reminded guests that China only started product placement in films in earnest over the last few years, compared with decades of practice in Hollywood stretching back to classics such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961).
But China’s catching up and imitating Western practice quickly, if not always smoothly. In the current boxoffice hit romantic comedy “Go La La Go,” by director Xu Jinglei, the male protagonist is cheered up when his girlfriend hands him a cup of Lipton tea without mentioning the American brand.
“Dialogue placement has to be used carefully or it will have unintended negative consequences for the product,” Mok said. Chinese audiences have yet to become inured to in-your-face branding and will moan in the movie theater at a blatant plug.
Luke Xiang, vp of marketing at online movie portal MTime, said some Chinese producers and brands are figuring out that their association need not appear on the big screen. Actor Tony Leung appeared on an outdoor billboard for Head & Shoulders shampoo with the same haircut and black shirt he wore in “Infernal Affairs” (2002).
Metersbonwe, a Chinese sportswear line, became the first company to put its product name in a Hollywood film and pay for the right to do so, said Sirena Liu, who worked on the campaign for “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen,” and now runs her own company, FilmWorks Entertainment Marketing, to serve DreamWorks Animation and Paramount International in China.
“Sometimes Chinese brands use Hollywood films to promote themselves without the studios knowing,” Liu said. The Metersbonwe name, however, appears in “TF2” legitimately, if only for a split second on a roadside billboard over a highway being crushed by "deceptions."
Because the brand got involved with the film late, the company couldn’t get the “TF2” cast to wear Metersbonwe clothes, Liu said. Later on, however, TV ads showed a Transformer chasing a Chinese kid down to hand him a Metersbonwe shirt, one of many “Transfashion” items that sold last summer in 3,000 Metersbonwe shops in China.
In a strong example that China’s ancillary markets have potential if planned carefully, Metersbonwe’s flagship Shanghai store sold 10,000 Transformers t-shirts in a week, said Liu, who is managing several Chinese clients’ product placements in the forthcoming “TF3” and will be working with advertisers in China in 2011 on Steven Spielberg’s “Tintin.”
Zhang Yang, director of the forthcoming road movie “Wu Ren Jiashi" (No One Driving) said he learned about product placement from Peter Loehr, now head of CAA in China, back in 1997, when Loehr was a producer.
“With my film ‘Spicy Love Soup,’ Peter showed us all kinds of things we’d never seen done for movies in China, like a soundtrack using pop stars, posters in the subways and a Valentine’s Day,” said Zhang about the film he said grossed about 30 million yuan ($4.39 million), a killing for its time.
“Though we automatically thought about car brands for ‘Wu Ren Jiashi,’ it wasn’t easy because they had very concrete requirements, such as exclusivity,” Zhang said. “It’s very tough for me as a director to have to think about this while I’m trying to focus on the story.”
One car brand offered Zhang six million yuan to appear in “Wu Ren Jiashi,” then halved its offer to three million before retracting it altogether.

“The lesson learned is to plan in detail or the match between the product and the film is not perfect,” Zhang said.