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Product Placement is Paramount

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Remember Nokio? Sharp-eyed viewers of the last episode of Melrose Place in 1995 may recall that the "Nokio" cellular phone got about 3.5 minutes of airtime. During what was a comparatively conservative era for TV product placement, many faux brand names managed to turn up on the set of a movie or TV show.

Nowadays, producers and the stars themselves have apparently relaxed. Viewers of the X Files, Popular, Spin City and Dharma & Greg, among others, see characters unabashedly using a Nokia phone.

But back in '95, TV producers were sufficiently concerned about the illegality of product placement, so they greeked, however lamely, the Nokia brand name.

For Nokia, the disguise didn't really matter. The important thing was that neither Motorola nor Ericsson were doing any product placement at the time. That would eventually change.

Not wanting to stand still, Nokia put Keppler Entertainment in El Segundo, Calif., on an estimated $10,000- to $25,000-a-year retainer to place its phones in movies and TV shows. "We originally had very little marketing money and dollar for dollar, it was a very cost-effective way to get our name out there," said Matt Wisk, former vp-customer marketing for Nokia.

Nokia now works with Propaganda, L.A, for placement in films and with Keppler for TV. Keppler got Nokia placements on Friends, while Propaganda got placement in The Saint, the product-laden but otherwise non-eventful Val Kilmer vehicle. Rival Ericsson soon picked up on Nokia's theatrical lead and got a spot in the late-1997 James Bond film/product placement-fest, Tomorrow Never Dies.

The in-movie phone wars really heated up this year, though. Late last year, Motorola retained PMK, the powerful Hollywood pr firm that represents Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster and Sharon Stone, for placement deals—even if Cruise himself has shied away from outright endorsements. (Continued on page 88)

Still, Motorola's P7689 phone netted a prime spot in the hit Cruise vehicle, Mission Impossible: 2. Ericsson, meanwhile, placed its World Phone on the CBS hit, Survivor. This fall, Nokia placement includes: the Mel Gibson flick, What Women Want; the revamped Charlie's Angels, starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu; and Dr. T and the Women, starring Richard Gere.

All these deals, however, may be weakening the value of the practice for everyone involved. Nokia watcher Marty Brandt, president of consultancy ProBrand, Menlo Park, Calif., couldn't remember whether it was a Nokia or an Ericsson that did a star turn in Tomorrow Never Dies. "I guess that's one of the risks, misunderstanding which brand is out there," he said.

With its rivals now chasing placement with enthusiasm, Nokia has moved on to the stars themselves. For the 8860 launch last year, Nokia gave advance models to actor Sean Connery and Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman.

"There are few greater ways to create a buzz than to have a limited supply of a visually interesting product," Wisk said. "By placing our product in the hands of highly visible people, we really created a buzz."