There are whispers that product placement is soon to take over a rather unlikely medium; podcasting. 

The difference between product placement and generic advertisements is that where an advertisement names the brand explicitly, product placement often involves characters on screen sipping from cans of Coke, sporting Nike kicks, or scarfing down KFC without naming them outright.

While this is commonplace in film and especially television – think of the iconic Sweet n Low sachets in Friends’ Central Perk – podcasts lack the visual cues able to do so. 

QCode, a podcast network known for its scripted-fiction podcasts led by actors like Rami Malek, Gina Rodriguez, and Demi Moore, is working on figuring out how.

“We think about QCode as an entertainment company,” Steve Wilson, QCode’s chief strategy officer, told Marketing Brew. Since product placement is so entrenched in film and TV, “it would only be natural that this would become part of the podcast landscape as the world of podcasts continues to grow.”

While QCode is still in the early days of experimenting with product placement—known at the network as “in-universe brand creative” in its current form, according to head of sales and brand partnerships Rich Eiseman—brands including Bud Light, Johnnie Walker, and HEB have already permeated a few of its shows.

Products that are fairly ASMR-able are most fitting. Alcoholic beverages, fizzy drink and crunchy snacks come to mind.

“As a regulated industry that can’t necessarily advertise everywhere other brands can, product placement allows alcohol brands to expand their channel mix and reach,” said Laura Correnti, partner at Giant Spoon, the agency behind podcast projects such as GE’s The Message, which included an “in-universe product integration” of GE tech decoding a message from outer space within the context of the sci-fi pod, according to Correnti.

An example by QCode would be their Jonnie Walker product placement. The whiskey brand ran in-universe ads Listening In, a psychological thriller that stars Rachel Brosnahan and heavily features the presence of a smart speaker. Episodes begin with the sound of ice cubes and liquid hitting a glass before a producer asks a smart speaker to play the podcast.

“Playing Listening In, presented by Johnnie Walker blended Scotch whiskey,” says a fictional voice assistant. Glasses clink, and the show begins. Again, the format combines the typical “presented by” podcast ad sponsorship model with QCode’s more native in-universe strategy. These kinds of ads do sit somewhat separately from the podcast’s actual story, hence the “in-universe” identifier that’s used to differentiate them from true product placement. QCode plans to offer traditional product placement in the coming year, Eiseman told us.

As to whether podcast product placement will work, QCode has worked with audio research and analytics platform Veritonic to help measure the performance of its in-universe ad which cited brand lift as one metric that could indicate success in these cases, but added that every campaign is a little bit different depending on the KPIs coming from the brand.

Hank the Cowdog, a QCode children’s pod starring and executive produced by Matthew McConaughey that features a campaign for Texas-based grocery chain HEB, performed well on the conversation front. It was one of the first projects that got the QCode team thinking about the potential for product placement, Wilson added, since the network put special thought into how to best interrupt the story with an ad, considering mostly children would be listening. The campaign consists of a branded jingle about Hank reacting to his mom coming home with HEB grocery bags, and apparently became an earworm for some young listeners.

In reflection, podcast product placement could also open the opportunities for musicians and producers to create synchable content in a way that prompts further attention grabbing techniques for both brand and listener. 

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