“Transformers: Age of Extinction” Receives 2015 Award for Most and Worst Product Placement, While “Lego Movie” Succeeds with Strongest Product Placement Impact

Transformers battle on the street as a double decker bus with “Victoria’s Secret” written on the front approaches.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” Wins the 2014 Award for Achievement in Product Placement in a Single Film and Worst Product Placement. Source: Google Images

Brandchannel’s Brandcameo Product Placement Awards have tracked product placement and brand appearances in every film that finished #1 at the US box office for 15 years. Released around the Academy Awards, Brandcameo honors the brands and products that appear in (and fund) movies.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is the fourth Transformers movie to be released, following the original Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). Transformers: Age of Extinction is regarded by critics and fans alike as the worst film in the series, with a popular review of 5.8/10 and a metascore (critic review) of 32/100 according to the International Movie Database (IMDb).

However, these are not the only ratings that distinguish the film: Transformers: Age of Extinction recently won the 2014 Award for Achievement in Product Placement in a Single Film (that is, the most product placement) and Worst Product Placement by Brandcameo. It also tied for first in Unwanted Product Placement. The film features 55 brands (which is actually less than Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which took on the same title in 2011 with 71 on-screen brands).

Unfortunately, Brandchannel reports that audiences “detested…mostly everything in Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The film is criticized for its portrayal of an Apple-owned Beats “Pill” speaker. Character Joshua Joyce is given the power to create anything he wants using only the power of his mind, and immediately conjures up this speaker. Also in the film, an Oreo vending machine turns into an Autobot. Other brands advertised include Armani, Budweiser, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Goodyear, Victoria’s Secret, and Chinese Yili Milk, to name a few.

Why would director Michael Bay allow for such obnoxious product placement? The Atlantic reports that product placement in domestic films can subsidize as much as 30% of a movie’s budget. Revenue from brands has more than quadrupled since 2010, reaching roughly $242 million in 2014.

Viewers likely noticed the heavy presence of Chinese brands in Transformers: Age of Extinction, as actors drink Chinese energy drinks in the middle of Texas and pay for things using a Chinese bank’s debit card. Ten of the 55 advertised brands were Chinese (almost 20%), compared to the typical domestic movie shown in China, which features four Chinese brands. Indeed, many producers have been targeting China both for its audience and product placement potential: China is the world’s second largest box office market and one of the fastest growing markets for product placement advertising, according to PQ Media. Box Office Mojo reports that more than three quarters of Transformers: Age of Extinction’s total lifetime gross revenue was generated outside of the United States.

Meanwhile, “The Lego Movie” won the 2014 Award for Product Placement Impact. One way to measure the success of product placement is by tracking the sales of the advertised products following the movie’s debut. Lego launched a million new play sets following the February 2014 release of its film, which made the brand the world’s largest toy company, passing Mattel in sales. In the first half of the year, Lego generated $468 million in sales at the box office and all of the related merchandise sales. The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the first six months, the company’s revenue rose by 11%.

Another way to gauge product placement success is to measure the movie’s exposure, profitability, and popularity. Compared to Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Lego Movie has achieved higher domestic total gross revenue ($258 vs. $245 million) and cost less to produce ($60 vs. $210 million), indicating a much higher overall return on investment. It was also better received, with a popular review of 7.8/10 and a metascore (critic review) of 83/100 on IMDb.

At the basic level, products are shown on screen. One step beyond basic product placement is product integration, in which products are woven into the film’s plot. The highest level of product promotion in film is to make a movie around a retail item or company, which is exactly what Transformers (first introduced as a toy in 1984) and Lego (founded in 1932) do.

The Lego Movie follows the unsuccessful movie launches of Bratz, Dungeons & Dragons, and Ouija, but gives hope and inspiration to other companies: Legendary Pictures is working a script for the rights it has on Hot Wheels cars while Illumination Productions is working on a project based on the Uglydools plush toy line.

Overall, product placement can be a valuable tool if used correctly. It is great at generating awareness and connecting audiences with products, especially when they are endorsed by famous actors and actresses or associated with popular films. Generally, the more obvious the product placement, the more it is viewed as an advertisement and the less effective it may be. This suggests that producers should strive for product integration versus product placement and aim for subtlety. For instance, in The Lego Movie, Lord Business speaks about his iPod Shuffle without showing it. In Skyfall, James Bond is seen drinking a green-bottled beer that viewers recognize as Heineken, although the label never shows. This stands in sharp contrast to the rather obvious scene in Transformers: Age of Extinction, in which a Bud Light truck wrecks, leaving hundreds of bottles of beer on the road, one of which is picked up and consumed (see the video, below).

From a marketing management perspective, here are some questions to consider:

  • Is a brand helped or harmed when it places its products in a movie that, despite its wide exposure, receives bad reviews?
  • Discuss the pros and cons of product placement in films versus other types of on-screen advertising. Why do you think its occurrence is increasing?
  • Select your favorite movie. What brands would be most appropriate in terms of product placement? If you were to re-produce the film, how could you integrate a product or brand into it most effectively?