Thanks to the quarantine and not having much else to do, my husband and I recently sat down to watch the premier of Amazon’s Making the Cut, a reality competition show hosted by Project Runway alumni Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. Aside from a few dramatic moments and surprisingly decent fashion, the show also provided a glimpse into what could prove to be the future of shopping and advertising.
The premise of the show is familiar: a group of designer contestants vie with each other to earn the top prize, in the process of which at least one winner and one loser are selected per episode. One of the biggest features on Making The Cut, however, is that as each episode airs, the winning outfit is then sold online on Amazon.com. What’s more, the overall winner of the program would have his or her entire finale collection be sold on Amazon as well.
The whole concept is arguably genius, but also a little disturbing. This was an Amazon-produced show, airing on Amazon’s own streaming service, with the winning products sold on Amazon.com. Plus, we were watching the show on an Amazon Fire TV, which offers up a tantalizing “Buy It Now” button at the end of each episode (This feature does not appear on other streaming boxes). When clicked, we could literally buy the outfit directly from the Fire TV.
In essence, Making The Cut was a giant paid-for advertisement for Amazon. “Amazon is creating a narrative that engages a viewer in the lives of the contestants of ‘Making The Cut,’ getting viewers emotionally invested in the story of the contestants,” said Blake Morgan, the author of The Customer of The Future. “The item the customer purchases from the show will have more meaning than something the customer simply pulls off the rack at a department store.”
Storytelling, she explained, is often a much more compelling way to sell products than traditional advertising. That’s why product placement is such an effective advertising strategy, and has been for many years. Morgan mentioned an early example of product placement from 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. “James Dean used an Ace Comb, and suddenly every teenage boy wanted the same comb,” she said.
That sentiment continues to this day. A 2019 study published by researchers from Indiana University and Emory University revealed that product placement is generally associated with increased online engagement. Plus, particularly prominent placements lead to even more social media conversations and traffic for that particular brand. “Overall, our results support the notion that product placements can help marketers reach consumers who have become adept at avoiding traditional advertising exposure,” said Beth Fossen of Indiana University in the study.
What makes Amazon’s efforts particularly unique is the sheer ease in which you could go from viewer to consumer with just a few clicks of a button. Plus, it’s Amazon, a site on which most people already do a lot of their online shopping. A 2019 Feedvisor study found that nearly 89 percent of consumers are more likely to buy from Amazon than any other e-Commerce site.
“Amazon morphed from being a bookseller to being where you go to buy doorknobs and bulbs,” Priya Raghubir, a Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business told Engadget. Over time, she said, Amazon has been particularly adept at popularizing e-commerce and making it mainstream. “When online shopping happened in the late ‘90s, there were security concerns in credit card numbers. The second barrier was sticker shock in shipping and handling fees. But now both have been alleviated and people are more likely to buy online.”
If Amazon has one area of weakness, it’s in apparel. “It just hasn’t taken off in the same way,” said Raghubir. “When it comes to clothes, there’s typically some amount of risk to fit. And Amazon has sometimes run into a problem where it has third-party sellers with questionable credentials.” Thanks to this reputation, she said, people are more reticent in buying clothing from the retail giant. That’s perhaps the driving force behind Making The Cut: to get rid of this reputation and make Amazon a place where you would feel comfortable buying clothes online.
Where things get murky is that watching the show doesn’t feel like an ad, even though it is one.
“What Amazon has enabled is the most zero friction approach to shoppable content because a consumer can be watching the show ‘Making The Cut,’ and in real-time tell Alexa to add the item to their shopping cart and actually buy it without leaving their couch,” said Morgan. Because of this straightforward approach, Amazon was able to sidestep the potential risk of consumers feeling duped or tricked. They already know that they are watching something that they could potentially buy.
That’s unlike a lot of TV and movie product placement today, which lacks transparency or any disclosures. “Disclosures from the entertainment industry need to come faster than they have been,” she said. “If social media influencers must disclose when they are being paid to promote an item, why are television shows and movies so late to disclose it?”
Perhaps the future of product placement would be to make it a lot more obvious. Imagine, for example, if you could purchase the clothing that your favorite TV star was wearing right then and there as you’re watching the show. As our televisions get smarter and more like computers, this kind of interactive product placement seems like the inevitable next step.
In a way, that future is already here. We already have some version of this with sponsored content on Instagram and YouTube, with social influencers touting herbal supplements or cosmetic products. As you view their photos or watch their videos, there are handy links in the description that will lead you to buy the associated product immediately. For a while, this sort of content wasn’t even deemed as advertising, thus giving the fan or viewer the sense that their endorsement was “real.” Of course, the FTC has since ruled that such influencers must disclose their sponsored posts or risk being fined.
“In the future, shopping will be as easy as telling your voice activated assistant what you’re looking for, or even simply describing what you need the item for,” said Morgan. Based on the data that Amazon has collected about you, those options could also be extremely personalized and targeted; imagine a version of “If you bought that, you might be interested in this” recommendation but in a product placement ad instead.
If there’s one thing that rubbed me the wrong way about Making The Cut, is the show overly emphasized a clothing’s commercial potential over its design aesthetic, which I tend to think is more important in a fashion contest. I also had issues with some of the weirdly harsh judging. All that said, I will fully admit into giving in and actually buying a couple of the winning looks. It worked on me, even if I didn’t really like the show. And if it worked on me, I bet it worked on others too.
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