Why Virtual Product Placement Can Help Hollywood’s and Advertisers’ Sustainability Problem

Marjolein Duermeijer, chief content officer at Ryff on the significant benefit VPP has of reducing content productions’ carbon footprint.

GM vehicle in Succession

As more is uncovered and shared about the impending climate crisis, the easier it is to feel like you’re living in the first act of a disaster movie. But with the same dedication that Hollywood has given to perfecting the apocalyptic blockbuster genre, the global entertainment industry is becoming just as resolved to prevent a real-life environmental disaster from unfolding.

As studios create long-term plans to drastically reduce their carbon footprint – often with the help of specialized organizations like the Environmental Media Association (EMA) in the US and albert in the UK – they are also taking more immediate action to inspire sustainability.

For example, Netflix and GM recently announced plans to feature more electric vehicles in the streaming giant’s films and series. But what if product placement went a step further, and rather than shipping the car to set, one could be digitally inserted into the hero’s driveway?

Virtual product placement (VPP) digitally inserts a brand’s product or image into a movie or series post-production, or even into a sports event in real-time. On top of creating new revenue opportunities, VPP also has the significant benefit of reducing content productions’ carbon footprint.

Environmental advantages of VPP

Reducing the entertainment industry’s carbon footprint is a massive undertaking, so it’s easy to focus on larger endeavors – like systemically changing production to 100% renewable energy – and overlook how something like product placement actually contributes to set emissions. This could also be due to the nature of product placements themselves which, when done properly, seamlessly blend into the story and scene.

For example, when a moviegoer eyes the sleek sports car parked in front of their hero’s compound, they won’t see the identical backup vehicles the brand shipped from Europe to the Saudi Arabian set – or the resulting environmental impact.

“Usually, you also need multiples of the shipment,” a partnership associate at Disney told research firm Radicle in a recent report analyzing VPP’s impact on sustainability. “Let’s say there’s a car – it would be, say, eight cars that we need that are identical so in case any damages happen, we can use another product. Brands will also sometimes give us their whole collection; like Chanel will send the entire makeup collection to us so the actor can be seen using [different Chanel products] throughout the film.”

Unlike its manual counterpart, VPP doesn’t leave a carbon footprint because it doesn’t require items to be shipped to set – items that also are sometimes returned, but others are simply left to go to waste in a storage facility.

Radicle calculated the potential environmental impact a normal amount of manual product placement would have for a production filmed in the Middle East. If the production required a car flown in from the UK, sponsored beverages from the Netherlands, and luxury items from Switzerland, for example, that would result in 28.6 metric tons of carbon emissions. Shifting from manual to virtual product placement would cut more waste than eliminating single-use materials and recycling materials combined.

Product placement, which was valued at $19 billion in 2021 according to PQ Media’s ‘Global Product Placement Forecast 2022 – 2026,’ provides a significant opportunity to work towards net-zero. With VPP estimated to be worth $6.6 billion in the US in 2023, there is room for continued growth and environmental impact. And while the scalability of other endeavours, like switching to solar power or hydrogen fuel to reach net-zero, may present logistical hurdles and alignment across production, VPP actually minimises the legwork for both the brand and production.

An opportunity to embrace core values

Like entertainment companies, advertisers and brands have also turned their attention to the climate crisis and are trying to reduce their environmental impact. In fact, last year leaders from major holding companies (including Omnicom, dentsu and WPP) and brands ranging from Unilever to Meta announced plans to adopt Ad Net Zero, a UK-based initiative that aims to reduce carbon emissions in the advertising industry to net zero. A plethora b-to-b start-ups have also emerged to help brands and agencies reach their new goals surrounding climate change.

This is an era of activism and consumers expect brands to take action when it comes to the environment. In fact, according to Deloitte, almost a quarter of consumers said that they would switch their buying habits to start purchasing a product from a brand that aligns with their values on environmental issues.

A recent study found 45% of marketers said product placement humanizes a brand. But this visibility comes with a certain level of responsibility. For a brand to be seen as green, they have to take the necessary steps to earn that title, and there simply isn’t a reason to ship what Radicle estimated was between five and 20 cases of a beverage, for example, to a set when they could have been digitally input into the frame.

Virtual technology to spread environmental messaging

As a part of its ‘eco inside’ initiative, the EMA provides prop masters with a comprehensive “Green Shopping List,” complete with environmentally friendly products to use when decorating sets. For example, reusable cloth washcloths instead of cotton swabs; bars of soap rather than liquid cleansers in single-use plastic bottles; a French press coffee maker rather than individual pods. VPP could go a step farther and enable environmentally friendly products to get airtime without increasing their carbon footprint.

Beyond traditional product placement, VPP technology also has the ability to insert environmental messaging into characters’ lives and storylines, which would help raise awareness of sustainable practices and inspire viewers to take action. For example, VPP technology could be used to insert “Save the Bees!” on a character’s t-shirt just as easily as a Nike swoosh. It could also go back into previously shot content and replace older products’ packaging with newer, greener alternatives.

As Hollywood goes green, it has the ability to do it every step of the way.

This article was originally published by Little Black Book and was written by Marjolein Duermeijer.

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