The Future of Product Placement Marketing & Free Stock Photos

Gen Z

By Amanda Wenger

Graphic Designer

Everybody’s seen a movie with an iconic product placement—whether it was luring E.T. out of the shed with Reese’s Pieces candy, the Wilson volleyball in Cast Away, or those snazzy luxury car brands James Bond drives around. And placements undoubtedly work—following the release of the Transformers movie franchise, a staggering number of Camaro purchasers in China—over 70%—chose the yellow version of the car featured in the films.

In the fast-paced days of social media, where anyone’s content could be the next viral hit, pricey Hollywood product placements aren’t the only option available to brands looking to drive awareness. Recently, a handful of forward-thinking brands have begun a shift towards earning organic impressions using a different tool: stock imagery.

Images and Branding

As a graphic designer at MNI Targeted Media, a significant portion of my job involves making certain our message is always paired with imagery that reflects our brand’s ideals—that we put your message in front of real people doing real things in their real lives. As a result, I spend a lot of time looking to license imagery that looks authentic and genuine, to represent who we are and what we do. 

The average social media influencer, however, operates on a tight budget, which may preclude investing money into licensing traditional paid stock imagery on a regular basis. The challenge, then, becomes finding a way to pair a message with catchy visuals without breaking the bank. Fortunately for them, the internet is full of free and “micro” (budget-priced) stock imagery resources—traditionally populated by aspiring student photographers and skilled amateurs, imagery can be used under various royalty-free or attribution-only models.

Product Placement & Free Stock Images

Free stock giant Unsplash used this knowledge to roll out a new model of content curation last December.  The service, called Unsplash for Brands, allows companies to partner with Unsplash’s array of global photographer users and produce a collection of imagery aligned with a brand’s visual identity—a collection that content producers worldwide can then utilize for anything they want to make.

This model has the potential to disrupt the stock imagery industry by shifting who foots the bill for imagery. Traditionally, stock photographers upload their products to premium stock vendors like Getty Images, Adobe Stock, or Shutterstock, and are paid a portion of the earnings when a graphic designer—the end user—chooses to purchase a license to for a photo. With Unsplash’s new identity-building model, the brand pays the photographer to take the photos and the stock distributor to host their collection, and the end user obtains the product at no cost.

The Benefits of Both

Influencer Lipstick

Why do things this way? As a designer, if I have a choice between a paid image and a free image of similar quality, I have a responsibility to manage our budget by picking the freebie—but the brand, in return, gets the opportunity to place their product in front of my audience.

Stock photos come with automatic context, too.

An influencer’s Facebook post about their favorite lipstick brands isn’t likely to use a photo of a baseball, and a YouTuber talking about making mods to a motorcycle won’t be showing reference images of cookware. Thus, brands can be fairly assured that viewers will be seeing their product paired with media that keeps them top-of-mind to a self-selecting target audience.

The one major con for the brands is that by licensing images for royalty-free commercial use, they do lose some control over how content creators use the image. A brand may not want to appear in content that negatively portrays their industry or product—but that’s also a risk that traditional editorial-use-only licenses carry to some degree (negative press is still, fundamentally, press—covered under the scope of editorial use). Typical commercial licenses do contain a clause about not using the imagery for anything explicit or nefarious. Still, if brand safety is paramount to a company’s identity, this may not be the correct approach.

Meanwhile, photography professionals have frequently lamented the possibility that the rise of skilled amateur digital photography and free-to-license stock providers will put them out of business. But the fact of the matter is that stock photography has always been a purely speculation-based market—the photographer has no guarantee any particular image will gain attention or be licensed by anyone.

And, for that matter, curated premium paid stock sites are the go-to source for more specialized imagery. If I need a photo of a computer or a flower, those are readily obtainable for free. If my project demands a model-released photo of a woman in the 35–45 age bracket, holding a coffee, standing by a hotel, in New York City, with a taxi in the background, well, that’s not going to appear at random in the limited image selection of a freebie stock provider. Nor am I going to be able to tell a visual story by licensing 10 images of the same model doing different things—but premium stock suppliers can meet that need.

The Stock Photo Shift

Just like when the appearance of services like Uber and Lyft disrupted the transportation industry, but didn’t completely eliminate those iconic yellow taxi cabs, stock photography has been in the midst of a paradigm shift. The onus is on the pros to figure out how to adapt to it.

Business People Circle

Speaking of shifts, for the initial announcement of its service, Unsplash selected a handful of brands with specific motives. 

Per their blog, “We picked each brand because they were trying to accomplish something incredibly difficult: shifting mainstream perception.”2 Whether trying to reach a new demographic (i.e., Harley Davidson marketing their electric motorcycles to Millennials) or advocating for a cause (i.e., Boxed Water is Better), the initial brands offering content have the goal of changing the way we look at them.

In the wake of Unsplash’s announcement, it remains to be seen whether other free stock providers, such as Pexels or Pixabay (both owned by design freemium service Canva) will follow suit, or if paid premium providers will consider any similar model. In the meantime, it’s worth it for every product-focused brand to ask itself whether adopting a stock image placement program could lead to greater brand awareness.

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