Transformers movie highlights mainland product placement trend

Lights, camera, product placement

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 10:41am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 9:26pm

The latest Transformers movie - which has so far grossed more than US$300 million at the Chinese box office - is riding on the growing trend of featuring product placements in mainland productions.

In one scene of Transformers: Age of Extinction, Cade Yeager, played by Mark Wahlberg, uses a China Construction Bank ATM - in Texas. "Cade uses the card to track the enemy's whereabouts and eventually save the planet with the Autobots," a spokesman for the bank says. "[We have] fully demonstrated our product's features through seamless integration with the plot."

The statement describes the card as "equipment for heroes".

The extended fight scene shot in Hong Kong also features a milk drink and a prominent lingerie brand.

Melanie Lo, chairwoman of the media committee at the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies in Hong Kong, says peers in the local advertising industry found this kind of blatant product placement odd, but she notes that mainland audiences are more receptive to it.

"Maybe you'd feel a little bit proud that a [Chinese] brand is appearing in an international movie," she says. "In that sense, that works."

Film industry publication The Hollywood Reporter goes as far as saying "the movie's success was lifted by the inclusion of popular actress Li Bingbing and heartthrob Han Geng, and lashings of product placement for everything from Chinese milk and PCs to Red Bull and authoritarian styles of government".

Lo says that product placement is picking up fast on the mainland. According to a global report released last year by the media research firm PQ Media, product placement spending there increased by 27.2 per cent to reach US$103 million in 2012.

The report says much of that growth was due to global brands putting their products in Chinese TV and movies; the latest Transformers movie is a prime example of how many Chinese brands appear in a top Hollywood blockbuster.

Cedric Lam, general manager of media and communications agency PHD Media, who has helped brands get their products on television and movies, claims product placement works. "It can be very effective, more so than a traditional ad," he says.

"People are moving towards online media, and if you show them an ad, they can just close it. So a good way of advertising is to embed it in content, and the same is true for TV and movies."

Product placement isn't new to Hong Kong or the region. The 2007 movie Wonder Women was criticised for its over-the-top product placement. It's not confined to the big screen, either. Lam points to My Love from the Star, a recent hit Korean drama shown on TVB in which the leads use Line, the messaging app, on Samsung phones to communicate with each other.

"If a product ties into the story and really shows off its features, that will make the placement easier to accept," Lam says.

Product placement isn't as blatant in Hong Kong as it is on the mainland, he says, because for free television the broadcast regulations draw a clear distinction between advertising time and programme time. There is an upper limit on advertising of either 10 minutes per hour, or 18 per cent of programme time.

Kineta Hung, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who co-authored a study on product placement in television dramas, says less is more when it comes to this practice.

"Companies always want to put more information into a placement opportunity, but [too much] will turn audiences off," she says. "They'll think, 'I'm watching a movie, why do I have to watch this as well?'

"Product placement, unlike an ad, should be natural, so audiences can accept a product or learn more about it. If you jam a lot in, you'll achieve the exact opposite," Hung says.


The top five strangest product placement shots in Transformers: Age of Extinction 

  1. To show off the shape-shifting properties of the substance “Transformium,” a scientist turns it into a Beats Pill speaker.
  2. During the battle sequence set in Hong Kong, the camera slows down across a tram with a Victoria’s Secret ad.
  3. Also during the battle sequence, Stanley Tucci’s character sips from a carton of ‘shuhua milk’ from the Chinese brand Yili. This milk was also featured in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
  4. Mark Wahlberg’s character uses a China Construction Bank card and ATM in rural Texas.
  5. Mark Wahlberg’s character crashes an alien ship into a trailer full of Bud Light beer, scattering beer bottles all over the street. He stops and has a drink.

A translation of China Construction Bank's press release, detailing its role in Tranformers: Age of Extinction

"The recently released Transformers: Age of Extinction has attracted huge audiences both within and outside China, and the Chinese elements are particularly noteworthy. The China Construction Bank credit card that protagonist Cade Yeager carries with him is a highlight of the film... As the country's first bank to partner with a Hollywood production company, China Construction Bank has revolutionised advertising and once again raised our credit card's profile internationally.

China Construction Bank rode the film's wave of popularity...imbuing the card with the heroism of the Transformers and sparking debate among fans worldwide: 'China Construction Bank credit cards -- equipment for heroes,' 'China Construction Bank credit cards help the Autobots save the planet.'"