A new company attempts to harness product placement's subliminal power for good.
As a set dresser and decorator for film and TV, Beth Bell stocks fictional characters' lives with real stuff—from the moisturizer lining their medicine cabinets to the vodka behind their neighborhood bars. And product placement companies are always on-hand to promote the world's biggest brands to Bell, helping her unload "Sweet n' Low and Little Debbie and crap" into these characters' lives.
"Brands exist in real life, so they should exist in fictional life and reality shows, too," Bell says. But some brands are better than others—and as shoppers in the real world begin investing in healthier foods and greener cleaners, there's no reason their Hollywood counterparts shouldn't do the same. So last year, Bell teamed up with colleague Lisa Dietrich to form Green Product Placement, the first company to promote sustainable, charitable, organic, and local products to Hollywood productions. "It was like the sky opened up and the angels sang," Bell says of the idea. "I couldn't believe no one else was doing this."
Which green brands are ready for their closeup? Bell and Dietrich have already teamed up with Applegate Farms' organic meats, Full Circle's sustainable cleaning products, and PeaceKeeper Cause‐metics' philanthropic makeup (they assess a brand's "green" bonafides on a "case-by-case basis," a process they compare to stocking an organic grocery store shelf). So far, they've successfully placed green stuff on the sets of HBO's Enlightened and Veep and Netflix's House of Cards. Soon, Bell says, viewers could spot Glow's gluten-free cookies "right behind some of the main characters' heads" in one show and a big ad for Sloop Betty's organic vodka in the bar scene of another.
Bell says that the exposure these green products get on film has a "cumulative effect" that can ultimately "help viewers recognize them as a normal brand, and not a fringe one." But promoting products with sustainable supply chains and give-back business models can improve storytelling, too. If a Toronto-based production wants to achieve a small-town Southern feel, for example, it can reach for props from a local Georgia brand as opposed to a multinational corporation. And a show featuring a new-age hippie would be wise to stock her fridge with almond milk and her bathroom with recycled toilet paper.
Harnessing product placement's subliminal pull makes for an uncomfortable business model, no matter who's taking the reigns. But as long as big corporations keep shipping their wares to Hollywood, Bell and Dietrich are committed to getting alternative products in the frame. "We want to take product placement's evil power, and turn it into something good," Bell says. Or at least, something better.