Celebrity Product Placement: A Primer


With more and more companies wanting to integrate their products into the lives of
celebrities, now seems like a good time to take a closer look at Celebrity Product
Placement, describe three common approaches, and outline what steps can be taken
to guarantee results.

The term “Celebrity Product Placement” is used to describe several related
techniques, but its definition applies to each: free products are distributed to
celebrities in expectation of a promotional benefit. Unlike the more overt, paid-for
endorsement, it offers a distinct advantage. It can appear like a product choice
made on individual preference.

Most marketers are unaware of their options in this category (one form features
contracts with celebrities, guaranteeing performance and allowing marketers to
actively leverage celebrity patrons in the media) and therefore many overlook a very
powerful influencer-marketing technique.

In this article, I will describe each of the three main approaches and discuss their
relative merits by listing their pros and cons. I also hope to quash any
misconception that Celebrity Product Placement has to be a gamble, and show you
how best to secure a return on investment (R.O.I.).

But first, a little history…

Celebrity Product Placement (sometimes called “Celebrity Seeding”) has been with us
since the dawn of marketing. Centuries before Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped into
his first Hummer, an 18th century potter named Josiah Wedgwood began supplying
his wares to England’s Queen Charlotte. Being given the title “Potter to Her Majesty”
led to a huge amount of publicity for Wedgwood which he took advantage of using
the term “Queen’s Ware” wherever he could.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that marketers keyed-in on America’s “royalty”:
Hollywood. But more often than not they met with disappointing results. Some
companies responded only to occasional requests for products (“gifting”), while
others made half-hearted attempts to distribute them without first devising a means
to guarantee results (“seeding”). In the end, most companies seeded product “to the
wind” and failed to grow anything of value.

Those efforts that did succeed, however, were so successful that independent
specialists emerged to help companies achieve better results. But the services they
offer vary and so do the results.

What’s It All About?

Marketers have long known the power of celebrity to influence consumer-
purchasing decisions. The term “borrowed equity” has been used to describe how a
celebrity endorsement can bestow upon a product special attributes and cache it
might not otherwise have.

The same concept applies to Celebrity Product Placement. But unlike celebrity
endorsements, where a highly compensated personality appears in commercial
advertising, Celebrity Product Placement offers marketers a more subtle and highly
effective means of reaching the public – via the media they consume by choice.

Indeed, Celebrity Product Placement is as much about placing products with
celebrities as it is about getting stories about those relationships into the press.
Regardless of the approach, Celebrity Product Placement strategies have a common
aim: to tie celebrities (thought-leaders, influencers) with consumer products in the
public consciousness.

Three different techniques offer three different levels of control over that placement:
gifting-the-talent (this usually involves supplying products for gift bags at live
events); product seeding (products are distributed more widely in hopes of securing
a promotional benefit and kicking off a trend); and, barter relationships (individual
celebrities agree to participate in custom programs in exchange for valuable

Let’s take a look at each one in greater detail.


“Everybody” knows that celebrities own all the coolest stuff, and well before
everybody else. Celebrities travel the world and every minute detail of their daily
lives pervades the media. As style-leaders, they are perhaps our most powerful
influencers. It’s no wonder then that companies are lining up to give them the latest
gifts and gadgets for free.

One method to do this is called “Gifting-The-Talent.” This generally involves
supplying free product for insertion into “goody bags” which are handed out as
‘thank you’ gifts to celebrity presenters and award nominees at the now-countless
awards shows and charity benefits that dot the entertainment landscape.

At last year’s Academy Awards, for example, one of two Best Actress gift-bags
featured Gucci sunglasses, a Sprint PCS phone, Christian Tse 18-carat gold Iris
earrings, and more. The Best Actor bag featured Gucci eyewear, a Maurice Lacroix
Swiss watch and assorted other goodies. According to news reports, the retail value
of one such group of bags at the Oscars exceeded $110,000 each!

But how effective is this practice? If the goal of Celebrity Product Placement is to get
press coverage, can we measure the value of gift-bag placements? What types of
products are suitable and which are not? And what level of control does this strategy
offer marketers both in terms of demographics and reach?

There is no denying the value of being associated with these glitzy events, and by
extension, the celebrities who populate them. On the plus side, they offer a rare
opportunity to get close to the biggest stars in the world. On the minus side, the
marketer has no control in matching up celebrities who hold sway over their
particular demographic. They have to play the cards they are dealt.

Gifting-the-talent at award shows virtually guarantees mentions in the celebrity
press at the time of the event; but without permission to associate the celebrity’s
name and likeness with the product, marketers don’t have the leeway to truly
leverage those relationships in their own press activities.

Gifting-the-talent in this way has other limitations: first-movers snap-up desirable
categories and, of course, not all products are deemed appropriate. You won’t find
an energy drink in these bags.


Product Seeding offers marketers more control over whom to place products with
but, conversely, less control over how (or if) those products get used. And, while
virtually any product – from bottled water to consumer electronics – can be seeded
with celebrities, marketers are playing the odds here. But the payoff can be huge if
the seeding is supported by a creative strategy.

Product Seeding is the oldest form of Celebrity Product Placement. Products are
distributed more widely. They can be aimed at celebrities who are most compelling
to your demographic. And they can be delivered directly to the celebrity without the
filters imposed by events. Of course, working with a specialist who can get your
product directly to celebrities becomes paramount here. Film and television product
placement agencies are NOT set up for this practice.

Taken by itself, Product Seeding is a gamble. If you send enough freebies to
Hollywood but you don’t have a creative strategy, a celebrity might be photographed
using your product or evangelizing it on a talk show. But if one looks at Product
Seeding as one tactic in a larger Celebrity Product Placement effort, it can pay big
dividends – particularly in identifying celebrities who have a true affinity for your

Energy Brands, makers of the Glaceau Vitamin Water line, discovered this in 2004.
As a result of its long-time strategy to “home deliver” the vitamin-enhanced drink
to celebrities (including Sean “Puffy” Combs and Tom Cruise), the company gained a
fan in 50 Cent. Having mentioned his preference for the product in a series of
interviews, the Hip Hop star – who is well known for his fitness-centered lifestyle –
became an obvious choice for brand spokesperson.

Speaking to Ad Age magazine, Energy Brands’ VP of marketing, Rohan Oza, said
“We’ve seen that when 50 Cent incorporates [Vitamin Water] into his daily routine …
the brand gets on the airwaves and we create a lot of trial.” Making vitamin water a
visible part of the rapper’s healthy lifestyle worked so well the company launched a
new “Formula 50” variety named for the artist.

Such “organic” relationships can grow from Product Seeding. Not only can marketers
benefit from press mentions, but the process can be used to uncover promotional
opportunities and, in some cases, identify the most ideal product endorsers.

Product Seeding remains a gamble but, if executed properly, one well worth taking.
Relatively speaking, it is a very low-cost marketing program. And the return on
investment – though difficult to forecast compared to barter relationships discussed
below – can be big. But what if your goal is limited to getting press mentions? Can a
publicist hedge his or her bets in this category?

One of the great things about Product Seeding is how creative you can get. For
Trident White chewing gum, the company commissioned a Harris poll asking the
public to vote on the best “celebrity smiles.” My company, which specializes in
celebrity product placement, delivered gift baskets of the product to the Top 6
winners, allowing Trident to plug the celebrities in their press materials.

On another occasion, Electrolux – maker of a new high-end, super-quiet vacuum
cleaner – wanted to align their product with celebrities. We identified 6 celebrity
moms who had recently given birth and – touting the fact that these vacuums would
not wake a sleeping baby – made gifts of the product to each. Here again, the
company was able to use celebrities to draw press coverage for its product. And
they were able to reference these celebrities because they were stating facts (a gift
was made to…).

But what if you want tighter integration with celebrities? Suppose you need to
forecast a return on investment in order to get approval for a Celebrity Product
Placement campaign? And what if you want celebrities to provide feedback about
your product and authorize use of their names and likenesses as part of your press


Barter is, perhaps, the only way to guarantee performance on the part of the
celebrity. Unlike other forms of gifting, this is a quid pro quo relationship whereby
the celebrity agrees in advance to participate in the marketer’s promotional activities
– in exchange for valuable product.

Celebrity Product Placement campaigns of this type work best for big-ticket items
such as consumer electronics and (the loan of) cars. But with creative approaches,
special product questionnaires and generous “Right of Publicity” agreements,
marketers can use the celebrity’s name, likeness and opinion as part of their public
relations campaigns.

Celebrity Product Placement – via barter agreements – is also among the most
affordable ways to use celebrities. For the price of a few products, and sometimes a
token honorarium, companies can integrate testimonials into their PR materials and
create customized celebrity content for their websites.

They can involve numerous stars in a press campaign for less than the cost of a
single paid celebrity spokesperson. It is one of the most under-exploited tactics
available to marketers today.

A Case Study: Sony Electronics

The Sony CD Mavica – at the time, the only digital camera offering a built-in CD-
Rom – had failed to penetrate the increasingly crowded market for digital imaging
products. This was troubling for Sony because the CD Mavica offered clear
advantages over its competitors; namely, freedom from wires. But that message had
failed to reach the public.

Sony wanted to involve celebrities with their products and for that involvement to
influence the public in a meaningful way. They wanted a high-profile event –
preferably benefiting charity – upon which to launch a yearlong press campaign in
time for the Christmas shopping season. The focus: to promote the simplicity of
CD-based photography.

The budget was limited. But, having learned that the latest Sony products could be
made available to gift the talent, The Hollywood-Madison Group proposed a
Celebrity Product Placement campaign. Each celebrity would be asked to take a
picture of what “Freedom” means to them, and those photos would be auctioned off
for charity.

Such an artistic challenge, coupled with the prospect of receiving free Sony product,
not only served to induce celebrities to participate, but offered us an extraordinary
opportunity: to frame these pictures and mount an exhibition which raised money
for charity. Indeed, the charity component attracted higher-caliber celebrities and
provided the “hook” to draw media attention.

We successfully placed the Sony CD Mavica digital camera with fifteen top stars
including Eric McCormack, Alyssa Milano and Dennis Hopper. The photographs were
then offered for sale on eBay as part of Wired magazine’s annual charity auction,
and put on display at a star-studded event in Los Angeles.

Fifteen top celebrities demonstrated the practical use of Sony’s product and
authorized the use of their names, likenesses and opinions about the product for
press and marketing purposes (for one year). Sony received free advertising for its
product in print and online for three months (worth an estimated $100,000), as well
as 3.6 million webpage impressions (auction as a whole) and national press
coverage including Entertainment Tonight.

You can read more about this project on our website>celebrity_projects>influencer


Celebrity Product Placement offers marketers an exciting way to influence
consumer-purchasing decisions. Properly executed, it can be a low-cost, high-
return proposition. As such, it should be part of every consumer-marketing

Three different approaches offer three different results: gifting-the-talent (narrow
focus); product seeding (broad focus) and, barter relationships (one-on-one focus).
But, as we have seen, a tightly integrated celebrity product placement campaign,
combining elements of each, can improve results and deliver an impressive return
on investment.