Reverse Product Placement?

A few weeks ago, The New York Observer and other outlets began reporting on a trend making its way through the celebrity world: reverse or anti-product placement. Called a “wicked” new marketing strategy, this fascinating pattern describes marketing and public relations companies sending out free samples to famous persons with the hope of linking that brand with the A-lister’s strong public image.

But what’s so strange about that? Haven’t agencies been mailing out free samples and swag for decades? Isn’t it actually a commonly used form of publicity and sponsorship?

Yes; but now the difference is that they’re not just sending out the goods of their clients. They’re sending out samples from their client’s competition. Why would they do that? Well, because they’re sending out those branded products to celebrities with whom their own brand would never associate. For example, gleeful (albeit probably untrue) rumors are rampant in the fashion industry that a competing designer brand sent Snooki (the moniker for Nicole Polizzi of MTV’s “Jersey Shore”) a handbag from Gucci—all in an effort to devalue the respectable brand and boost their own sales. Snooki, who’s been in the news recently due to an arrest for disorderly conduct, is infamous for her less-than-brilliant comments and untoward antics on her hit reality television show, now in its second season.

The Observer also calls this tactic “deviously dirty” as a form of “unbranding.” It sounds technically legal—but could there be connotations of negatively associating a brand that fall under libel? Maybe someday; for one thing, the worlds of fashion and celebrity certainly love to argue about brand and copyright infringement, and they never shy from a potentially publicity-inducing legal battle.

So what do you make of this practice? Is it bratty or genius? Is it even ethical?

In a world where Tiger Woods can still swing a club like nobody’s business but can’t sell a pair of sneakers because of the goings-on in his personal life, there’s certainly something to be said about how seriously the American public takes brand association. In fact, perhaps we should be a little surprised that this sort of thing didn’t become common practice a lot sooner, especially way back when there were Martha Stewart arrests and Britney Spears breakdowns to capitalize on with anti-product placement.

At Mad 4 Marketing, reverse product placement doesn’t quite bear the level of finesse that we would want to enact for our customers and clients. We prefer to help you build and market strong brands that stand out simply because they’re the best and reaching the best-suited audiences for your products and services. But in the meantime, it does provide us with a hearty laugh behind our hands and something to chat about on meeting breaks.

And it makes us pay a little more attention to what Ms. Snookums is going to wear next week on “Jersey Shore”—and wonder where it really came from!

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