Korean companies take product placement to places no product has gone before
Product placements are no stranger when it comes to television shows or films, but some Korean brands are going the extra mile to have their products pop up in even the most unexpected places.
Take Kahi, for example: a newer Korean cosmetic brand that was first launched in 2020. The brand is best known for its multi balms — an oversized lip balm-type stick that can be used not only for the lips, but also anywhere on the face, neck and body.
Actor Kim Go-eun, who models for the brand, was shown repeatedly using the balm for her scenes in the SBS romantic fantasy series “The King: Eternal Monarch” (2020) and in tvN’s romance series “Yumi’s Cells” (2021-). Kahi’s multi balms have since earned the nickname “Kim Go-eun Multi Balm.”
Recently, however, Kahi has been actively pushing its products' overseas exposure through pop stars. The pink balms have made appearances in videos with Doja Cat, Ava Max and Lil Nas X.
What's interesting is that they are all featured completely out of context.
In Lil Nas X’s “The Montero Show,” which was uploaded to YouTube in September last year and viewed over 3 million times, the rapper puts on a one-man show to promote his full-length album “Montero” (2021). In an interview format, Lil Nas X plays the interviewee and the host, and the nine-minute show plays clips of the rapper’s previous notable music videos.
“Now tell me what is a vampire doing, testing Estée Lauder in the middle of a grocery store? Does that make any sense to you?” Lil Nas X asks using expletives, referring to a scene in his music video for the song “Rodeo” (2020).
“That’s a great point,” the host says, immediately holding up a pink Kahi multi balm, adding enthusiastically, “Almost as great as Kahi the amazing moisturizing balm. It helps prevent wrinkles and moisturizes your skin. It’s great for your eyes, lips, cheeks and neck. Go get some now!”
The randomness does not end there. In Ava Max’s music video for “Maybe You’re The Problem” (2022), the singer holds up the same pink stick in front of her face, blurring herself out in the background. She proceeds to apply it all over her face as she switches back and forth between a cartoon version of herself. In a later scene, she applies the same stick to a topless male lying down on a carpeted floor.
In the latest placement example from earlier this month, Doja Cat’s music video for “Vegas” sees the pop star rapping in a room with the pink balm atop a cluttered coffee table, which the camera later zooms in on.
The balm was also featured in the Taiwan television drama series “Family Reunion,” during a scene in which actor Vivi Chen holds it up while sitting at a desk in her office.
According to Lee Hong-u, marketing director of Kahi’s distributor, Korea Tech, the brand plans to continue its product placement internationally to realize its vision to become a cosmetic brand that represents Korea.
“Our goal is to promote our brand internationally, which is why we started executing product placement in music videos for celebrities overseas,” Lee told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It may not have an immediate impact on sales, but it’s a sort of investment. We want to see how specific countries react to our products, and we’ve actually received positive reactions from countries in Southeast Asia and the United States.”
In Korean media, arbitrary product placements frequently happen, to the point that some deem it to be ridiculous and a distraction to viewers.
“Such scenes are baffling to viewers, because it’s perplexing to see characters drink coffee [from a popular chain] in scenes where they are far from society, even in mountainous areas,” pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik said. “It’s gotten to the point that people have started becoming frustrated with these absurd situations.”
Back in April, online community forum DC Inside surveyed online users on the most distracting product placement items on television shows. Chinese-trademarked food that is not even for sale in Korea came in first place, with 15 percent, or 2,170 votes, out of a total 14,234.
The votes referred to tvN’s crime drama series “Vincenzo” (2021) and rom-com series “True Beauty” (2021), which both feature convenience-store foods with blatant Chinese logos like hot pot and bibimbap (a Korean mixed rice dish with vegetables) not sold in Korea.
When the episodes aired, the scenes were met with backlash. For “True Beauty,” viewers said it was “out of the blue” for Korean students to eat hot pot, a Chinese food, instead of the typical go-to food, ramyeon, at a convenience store.
Product placements for Chinese brands happen because the show’s production may have been heavily funded by Chinese companies or because the show may be largely targeting the Chinese audience, Kim says.
“Ever since China implemented unofficial bans on Hallyu [the Korean wave] in the country, more and more Chinese companies have been investing overseas,” Kim said, “which is why these brands have suddenly been popping up in Korean media.”
No. 2 on the list, chosen by 14 percent of respondents (2,007 people) went to “randomly eating packets of red ginseng extract,” a popular holiday gift in Korea believed to help strengthen the immune system.
Drama series like KBS’s “Descendants of the Sun” (2016) frequently showed its characters slipping out a pack of red ginseng extract as a snack. Thanks to the repeated exposure of the product, the Korea Ginseng Corporation announced that its sales had jumped 200 percent over February to April 2016 compared to the same period the year before.
Other choices in the top 10 were “high-end designer bags owned by the poor female protagonist,” “electronics that appear alongside explanations on how to use them,” “specific beverages that characters drink more frequently than water” and “showing car brand logos even in car chase scenes.”
“In domestic media, product placement is typically frowned upon, which is why we reduced it down to 50 percent,” marketing director Lee said. “We try to only place our products in scenarios where they can be shown naturally. The older generation is usually lenient or in favor of product placement, but it’s not the same with viewers in their 20s and 30s.
“But again, our goal is to become a brand that represents Korea, so nowadays when people see our products show up suddenly in the most unexpected places, they’ve started rooting for us, saying ‘Let’s see how far you can go.’”
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [email@example.com]