It is great publicity for the brands and, best of all, it is free Â well, almost. Fmcg companies either pay product placement companies an annual retainer to place their products on television programmes, or agree promotional campaigns with film producers. Fixed annual fees start at about Â£15,000 depending on the range and type of products being placed.
Distributor G Costa handles French's Mustard and Tabasco sauce which are regularly seen on soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street, and the spicy condiment also recently graced the kitchen of the Crossroads motel.
Marketing director Claudia Bailey loves this kind of exposure. "We definitely feel it's worthwhile and see it as a way of supplementing our traditional advertising." She believes identifiable products make programmes look more realistic because the characters are seen doing what people do in life.
Supermarkets are also attracted by the benefits that showing off their own label can bring and Somerfield gets in on the act whenever it can by providing food for film and TV shoots.
A spokesman says: "We're usually happy to do it because it is good publicity for us."
Heineken has gone one step further and frequently appears on the silver screen Â the next James Bond film Die Another Day is one of its latest coups. The company prefers films to television because they give it a platform on which to build extra promotional activities.
UK MD Rob Marijnen says now that control of the brand has been returned to Heineken from Interbrew it will be able to step up film work in the UK. And Heineken's appearance in the forthcoming James Bond could lead to on-pack promotions for trips to Hollywood with PoS using cardboard cutouts of the film's characters. Says Marijnen: "Television is a one-way street because there is not much we can do to capitalise on a single appearance, whereas film product placement will be firmly in our plans Â we like to make the most of it. And our activities also put attention back on the film."
Undue prominence can backfire
Bond films have always been a great product platform. Tomorrow Never Dies featured more placements than any other Bond, with BMW, Ericsson mobile phones, Avis car hire and Bollinger champagne all featured.
In the event, it sparked criticism that the hero was more international salesman than international spy.
Undue prominence of a product can also backfire as Sooty discovered a few years back Â he was rapped by watchdogs when his videos appeared prominently in one of his TV programmes.
But it is a manufacturer's dream if the likes of Martin Clunes and Neil Morrisey choose to drink Stella in every television episode of Men Behaving Badly.
Product placement companies usually work out the impact the item has had on screen by using some kind of star rating system.
For example, one star is for when the product is clearly visible, or in someone's hand; two stars puts it in the shot, but perhaps on a table or in the background; three stars means the view of the product is "fuzzy" and possibly only its shape can be seen. Screen value is roughly worked out by giving a product an abitrary value per thousand people watching, then multiplying that by the length of time it appears on screen. Ten seconds on Corrie could be worth about Â£4,000 in screen time, for example.
Interestingly, most placement firms don't know how often a product will be used, or whether it will be used in a negative or positive light.
This doesn't unduly concern G Costa's Claudia Bailey who works with the product placement company to make sure her products aren't ridiculed or made to look tacky.
You can only hope the worst won't happen'
"You're never exactly sure how the product will be used Â that's up to the programme makers. You also don't know if people will be looking at your product Â that can depend on how well known the character using it is."
Jonathan Gladwin is planning director at Propaganda, a product placement company or, as it prefers to be known, a free props hire firm. He acknowledges they can make no guarantee: "That is the nature of the beast Â you can only hope the worst won't happen."
However he points to the fact that if a product is going to be used prominently or negatively, TV companies go for a generic portrayal rather than a brand, which is why EastEnders' cast can be seen drinking bottles of beer' rather than brands on screen.
Gladwin is keen to counter the image of "men sitting in the pub passing products around in paper bags". He insists the business is all above board and suggests that he is saving the television production companies money because neither the BBC nor the ITC are allowed to pay for branded food props.
In the TV industry, the only currency the product placement business seems to deal in is goodwill Â getting friendly with television companies. And, as Gladwin says: "You don't agree anything, you are basing it on good relationships. There are great opportunities in soap operas and dramas in this country to get in front of large numbers of people."
But do on-screen appearances help product sales? Neither placement firms nor manufacturers can put a figure on it. One of the earliest product placements was in the blockbuster film ET where the star was enticed out of hiding with American chocolates Reese's Pieces. Subsequently sales soared, at one point by 60%.
However, research in the US has revealed that the more explicit the placement, the more consumers view that product in a negative light, expressing a preference for less intrusive and "in your face" advertising.
Another question is how aware are viewers of what they've seen? While Heineken's Marijnen acknowledges that, in exit polls, film-goers don't always recall the product, he believes the process can work on a subconscious level.
As always, the US is ahead of the game and there are now advertisements for a product that feature the film where it has had a placement.
The US is also considering using interactive technology so viewers can instantly buy products used by characters on the television programme they are watching. How long before entertainment is just one long ad?