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Product Placement Takes the Stage

You can't escape products on screen, but now they're making their way to your local theater.
September 28, 2007
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/184830

Product placement, long a staple in TV and movies, has in recent years become a growing part of the theater world. From Van Heusen shirts in Thoroughly Modern Millie, to a mention of Jose Cuervo in Neil Simon's revival of Sweet Charity and Tiffany necklaces in the stage production of Legally Blonde, Broadway is finding a role for products in shows. The placements are helping offset the rising cost of producing a musical, which now can top $12 million.

"It can be an excellent way to raise money," says Stewart Lane, whose latest hit musical, Legally Blonde, includes Red Bull energy drink and a UPS express delivery. "If used correctly, it can have an impact in the show." When Shepherd Mead's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying returned to Broadway in the mid 1990s, the show incorporated an Eight O'Clock Coffee Blimp that appeared on stage. "It was totally different from the original production, and audiences loved it," Lane says.

On the other side of the equation, "Broadway is absolutely a viable platform for sponsors," says Amy Willstatter, founder of marketing firm Bridge to Hollywood and Broadway. It was Willstatter who worked Jose Cuervo into the most recent run of Sweet Charity, with Neil Simon himself approving the line change in the script. "It's still a work in progress, but it's growing in popularity," she adds.

Coming to a Theater Near You
This latest technique isn't reserved for the Great White Way or large touring companies. From school productions incorporating props from local shops and restaurants to community and regional theater, there's a growing sense that products can make their way onto any size stage.

"We have local advertisers who help us raise funds," says Peggy Burton, chairman of performing arts for the South Jackson Civic Center in Tullahoma, Tennessee. "We do product placement and also have actual on-stage commercials when we do our fundraising shows." Along with the ads for local businesses, which often include a car dealership, jewelry store, shoe store and health food store, the Prescott Bottling Company of Tullahoma typically provides bottled drinks for actors to quaff while on stage.

Steven C. Helsel, operations manager for the Altoona Community Theatre in Altoona, Pennsylvania, is just beginning to explore this advertising realm. For a production of Swingtime Canteen, his team was looking for Zippo lighters to use on stage. Since Zippo is manufactured by a company in northern Pennsylvania, they asked the company to send several for the show. "As it turned out, they had a box of lighters that had the Swingtime Canteen logo on them, which they sent us to use in the show and sell in the theater," says Helsel, who at the time hadn't incorporated products into shows, but is now considering the possibilities.

"Now that Cats has reached community theater, there are many possibilities with all the trash on the set," he says. "If we were doing Cats here, I'd reach out to Boyer Brothers candy company or Benzel's [Pretzels], both manufactured locally."

Some local theaters aren't being shy about their tactics. On its website, the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco explains the benefits of product placement and outlines the available packages. According to the listings on the site, packages range from $100 to $400 and include as many as six product mentions and a principal and secondary prop, in addition to an ad in the program and the company's logo or commercial on a plasma screen.

Proper Staging
But Lane cautions that such placement isn't always applicable. For instance, he's helping bring Cyrano de Bergerac to Broadway in November with Kevin Kline for a limited run. "It doesn't lend itself to working in products in the same manner as Legally Blonde, which is contemporary and incorporates products that are around us everyday," he explains.

He adds that subtlety also is important when using product placement. "The stage production of the hit motion picture Big was an example of how product placement can backfire, even when it is intrinsic to the story line," says Lane in his new book Let's Put On a Show. "In the film, Tom Hanks side-steps his way across the large on-floor piano keys in a memorable scene. In the stage version, however, having FAO Schwarz prominently displayed did not work; it came across as crass and too commercial. There's a fine line between subtlety and blatant commercialism."

Concerns over subtlety, however, didn't stop Baz Luhrmann, who posted billboard-style ads for Montblanc pens and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne in his 2003 Broadway production of Puccini's La Boh�me. Brought to contemporary times, the ads enhanced the set in what turned out to be an award-winning production.

While theater purists wrestle with the notion of commercialism on stage, product placement has made its presence known, not just recently but over the years, in lyrics such as "I could say life is just a bowl of Jell-O" from "A Cockeyed Optimist" in Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific. Whether it means mentions in songs or Spam in Spamalot, product placement in theater appears to be here to stay. For entrepreneurs, it's a way to put your name in front of a new audience every night, while being part of the theater experience.