True Reverse Product Placement

futurelab default header

by: C. Sven Johnson

Confession time. I’d started writing a piece on “Reverse Product Placement” last February with the intent of selling it the same way that David Edery (via the Harvard Business Review) was selling his short article on the topic. Only my position, after reading about* his article and giving the idea some additional thought, was that his definition is flawed; that true reverse product placement was, as I recently described in another post, something else and what he was talking about was more like futures product placement.

Here’s the relevant bit from that post (reLink):

…to me true “reverse product placement” wasn’t just having a virtual brand generate sufficient interest to facilitate the sale of real product. If by “product placement” marketers mean embedding real world products in (virtual) media to spur sales of the real, then imo the reverse is putting virtual products in the real world to spur sales of the virtual. That’s not what Edery is describing here: “reverse placement, or the commercial translation of fictional brands or products from games into the real world.” Thus, the creation of the real product is only the embedded advertising that entices people to buy the virtual version. Now this wouldn’t seem to make any business sense. It’s certainly not intuitive, but I think it can and will… eventually.


The reason I suspect this won’t be intuitive to most people is because I continue to hear the incredulous refrain, “People pay money for stuff that ain’t real?” (referring, of course, to virtual goods).

Now I’ve gone through the argument plenty of times on this blog explaining that much of what people already buy is “virtual”, so I won’t have anyone suffer through it again. Instead, I want to point out an article on Wired, “How to Take Money From Kids: Sell Toys Both Physical and Virtual” (Link), that provides a context for what I’m thinking. From the article:

Webkinz look like Beanie Babies, but come with a code to unlock a digital doppelgänger children play with in a Sims-like digital world. The combination has proven as habit forming as the Tamagotchi phenomenon, but with a stuffed animal that sleeps in your child’s bed. And it might be the ploy that saves the toy industry.

Webkinz kick-started a trend in children’s gaming that ties virtual environments to real-world merchandise. Online games for kids aren’t new. Sierra Online had tot-focused games in the early ’90s, and Neopets proved a hot product six years ago with a similar concept. But the unprecedented success of Webkinz is inspiring everyone from Barbie to Disney to get children invested in both the digital and the physical.


My take-away from the success of Webkinz is a reinforcement of my long-held contention that the money isn’t in the Thing; it’s in the Experience that comes with the Thing. And in the case of Webkinz, a significant piece of the Experience is the social interactivity that operates via an online, virtual component.

What I don’t know is if the various stats for the virtual pet can be relayed back to the real one. I doubt it. But it should. Imagine, for example, that as a result of the virtual pet not being fed by its owner, the physical toy’s belly started making “hungry” noises. That sort of transreality connection is behind many of the ideas I float on this site.

The thing is, I get the impression that Ganz started off being concerned only with selling a physical product; perhaps they still are. But is that where the money really is? I don’t believe so.

Personally, I see Webkinz and similar devices becoming the toaster(!) that banks give away to entice customers to use their service. And how does a company like Ganz make money to cover the cost of the physical product? Simple. Through micro-accessorizing and/or advertising using regular or even perhaps futures product placement.

Now imagine what happens when these give-aways can be fabbed on-demand? using the data taken from the “digital doppelgänger”? Tell me that isn’t interesting.

*Note: One of the reasons I never finished writing that piece was I couldn’t get over having to pay for a short article discussing something I considered old news, so I delayed purchasing it… until just prior to writing this post. As some people are aware (including, I believe, Ilya Vedrashko), I was already working on developing virtual brands for potential transition to real product; Maepuhl (Appliances, image above) being one of them. Plus, as I mentioned in a post back in January, I’d already written a rather long entry (reLink) explaining – in greater detail – how a retailer could do exactly what Edery was proposing.

Anyway, I’ve since read his article (all one page of it). There’s less material than I expected. However, the simple ideas in that lost piece I was writing are no longer worth selling, imo. Hence the reason for simply posting this entry. There are more interesting things to not write about now; things having to do with true reverse product placement.

For reference:

– Ilya Vedrashko’s blog entry, “Case: Fictional and Proxy Brands: Sprunk” (Link)

– David Edery’s article, ” Reverse Product Placement in Virtual Worlds” (Link – purchase on the Harvard Business Review)

– David Edery’s blog entry “Brand Genesis in Games” (Link)

Original post: