Who knew aliens could sell candy? Forty years later, ‘ET’s legacy includes product placement in movies

Originally released in 1982, “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” was re-released this month on IMAX screens to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The film is notable for many reasons: it’s directed by Steven Spielberg and one of the highest-grossing films of all time. In marketing circles, “ET” also represents an important turning point in product placement as a promotional strategy.

Product placement describes the deliberate presence of a brand in entertainment media. The practice involves contractual agreements that typically stipulate fees in exchange for on-screen exposures of branded products.

While product placement deals were apparent in much earlier times, the practice notably grew during the 1980s. The effective use of Reese’s parts in ‘ET’ played an influential role in these developments. .

The adorable alien is pulled out of hiding when Elliott – a 10-year-old character – leaves a trail of Reese’s Pieces. Candy drives ET from a wooded area in the San Fernando Valley to Elliott’s house. It’s quickly apparent that Elliott and ET love Reese’s Pieces.

For marketers, the potential for product placement was highlighted when sales of Reese’s Pieces soared soon after.

Reese’s Pieces was also a relatively new product, introduced by the Hershey Company only four years before “ET” was released. Presence in such a popular and well-received film has given the candy greatly enhanced brand awareness.

The initial “ET” script apparently had M&M’s – a direct competitor to Reese’s Pieces – used as alien bait instead. Nevertheless, Mars, Inc. – the producer of M&M’s – declined the opportunity.

Snopes offers some “alleged reasons” why the company declined: Mars didn’t want its candy “associated with an alien living with an Earth family, or he thought the film’s premise was a little too supernatural, or a ruler M&M’s Anonymous has decided no one would want to see a movie about an alien adopted by a lonely child.

Product placement has since become an important source of income for film producers. “Tomorrow Never Dies,” for example, will gross over $100 million through product placement deals. James Bond was seen using a Visa credit card, drinking Smirnoff vodka and Heineken beer, sporting an Omega watch and driving a BMW.

Additionally, product placement has become a means of making sets more realistic. It became common for scenes to feature characters drinking Coke rather than generically calling out “cola”. Featured brands see their market leadership enhanced when they are used ubiquitously.

Of course, product placement is not limited to movies. Product placement is used in many mediums, including television, video games and even novels (Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection is a controversial example).

ET’s milestone anniversary provides an opportunity for reflection. If you’re seeing the film on a local IMAX screen soon — or revisiting the film elsewhere with kids or grandkids — consider how the marks intertwine with our treasured memories.

Timothy Dewhirst is Professor and Senior Researcher in Marketing and Public Policy at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph.

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