When I think of the concept of product placement in film, one of the first scenes that always pops to mind is a closeup of Michael J Fox’s (playing the role of Marty McFly) White Nike shoes, with a bold red swoosh, as it slams on the brakes of his DeLorean time machine as he rockets back to the past in the opening action sequence of the film Back to the Future. A little digging around on the internet and you discover that your childhood favourite franchise of movies is a hotbed for product placement for brands that include the likes of Pizza Hut, Pepsi, Western Union, Toyota and memorably Calvin Klein. Each of these brands have been cleverly worked into key moments of the plot, sometimes in a way that they are distinctly memorable and timeless. Other times the registration is so subliminal. Years later as adults we may remember the scene with Marty’s younger version of his mum calling him Calvin because of the briefs he is wearing. But when he lusts after a black pickup truck, do we really remember the brand being a Toyota? Product placement is nothing new. Which is why when I recently discovered that stock image site Unsplash is proposing to engineer brand placement in its vast catalogue of stock photographs, I find the idea to be both brilliant and yet strangely banal. The adage goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but when you have a brand place its product in it, how much would it be worth?
Unsplash’s claim to fame is its stellar curation of free photographs. It is now probably the number one free stock photography website anyone turns to for a free image. Whether you need a stock image to go with a social media post, a desktop wallpaper or to use in some kind of commercial artwork or advertisement or just to make your Powerpoint a lot more pretty, it’s likely to have been found on Unsplash. Especially, if there is next to no budget to buy an image. The challenge though is that often a small set of photos end up being curated time and again. It can be odd and hilarious to see the same photo used across multiple executions by various brands. I once remember seeing two print ads run in the same paper for two entirely different products but using the same stock photograph. So, if you see a hoarding and think to yourself, haven’t I seen that picture before? It’s likely to be from Unsplash or a similar competitor and yes you have. Yet it is this repetition of image usage and popularity of the site that has lead to this tipping point from the website being a resource of free photographs, to potentially becoming yet another medium for product placement. They have currently announced this feature with a waitlist on their website.
So how would this work?
The purpose of this approach is likely to get your product featured in images or image collections that are curated on the site. In everyday usage these images are picked up to accompany anything from long form content articles to social media posts by any number of content creators or brands. Why those forms of content in particular? Well, these are the image uses that are likely to see the source image not being reworked as extensively. Likely, the image will be published with light cropping at best before usage.
So imagine you are a camera brand like Nikon, Sony, or Cannon that needs to release a camera that is ideal for travel photography. The travel flat lay has become ubiquitous when it comes to travel blogs and articles. You commission Unsplash to create the perfect stock photograph that subtly hints at your brand colours and puts your new product smack dab in the centre of a nice rustic table and a map half unfolded with a straw hat and drink to finish it off. The people who use the photograph may not even realise that the camera happens to be the latest flagship model. And that image is so popular that it is picked up by say by not just individual travel bloggers but renowned travel sites too. Suddenly you find that in the consumer’s mind the perfect travel camera must certainly be the one that features on that travel blogger site and all those other sites they follow.
Mind you this is not just about cameras. It can be any kind of product big or small or even a design aesthetic, workplace or destination. You could have even entire photo collections that espouse brand values and cues while not overtly showing off the product. There really is nothing you can’t integrate into a stockphoto if you think about it.
As mentioned above, this approach works best when the images that features the said product placements are not tampered with. It is true that stock images are also the backbone for more complex artwork and graphic design rendering, photo bashing or concept art. This is unlikely to be the target user.
Commercial graphic designers will usually take the pains of removing existing brand names on any items in a stock photo, or try to pick only those generic pictures that have limited brand visibility in the first place. In the above camera example publishers may photoshop out brand names to avoid potential copyright issues. Often the shape of the product is enough to pick it out by a discerning eye. But say what if you are trying to feature this year’s Macbook Pro. Such products are kind of difficult to differentiate unless they are set side by side with last year’s model. Some ranges of Sony and Cannon cameras even face this problem. So it is important that not only is the shape of your product model distinct from others in the product line-up, but that it is being used in the photograph in a way that it is not only memorable but applicable to common usage. Getting subtle brand colour hints and cues I think are critical.
I am certain Unsplash must be wooing brands with keyword search research that will provide the kind of insight needed to compose what goes into these photographs. What makes Unsplash popular after all is the quality of the photos that are on it. These are largely generated by a community of photographers who contribute to it. These images are often post processed to perfection. Yet the real challenge is that there are some instances where you just can’t find what you are looking for on Unsplash and have to turn to niche paid stock sites. It is these missing photographs that provide brands with the best opportunity to team up and curate and seed their products.
All in all I think that this is fresh new territory that definitely will have brand clamoring to fill. Especially since we have so many visually driven social platforms to satiate. Something to keep an eye on.
Disclaimer: Unsplash hasn’t paid me to write this article and I am in no way associated or speak for the company. Views shared within this article are solely my own.