Individuals can respond when they see positive examples of sustainable behavior or greener brands on TV or in movies. Mention these brands on social media — tag the production, network, studio, and brand. Let them know that you want to see more in the content that you watch. This response helps the brands placing product and informs the content makers that the public wants to see more of this type of influential placement! What society can do is to follow the example and keep pushing the movement forward. Finally, better brands are getting more shelf space in conventional retail, now, help keep them in business. If you don’t see your favorite green brand in your local supermarket or drugstore, ask the management if they can start carrying it. Lastly, call the networks and content makers out on that all-powerful social media when you see them not setting a good example onscreen. Single-use plastic water bottles, Styrofoam carryout containers, conventional cleaners, fast food companies with a less than stellar carbon footprint, etc. are not things that should be held up as examples. You know how you can take to twitter when you get bad customer service from a company? You can do the same by calling out content producers for showing behaviors and products that could be seen as not sustainable.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Beth Bell. Beth spent many years in the set dressing and decorating departments on such feature films as “Game Change,” “The Replacements,” “Runaway Bride,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Washington Square,” “Pecker,” “Contact,” and “For Richer or Poorer,” along with television shows “Veep” and “House of Cards.” Because of this, Bell was very familiar with the use of product placement to dress and prop feature films. Bell was inspired by the prospect of being able to use this very powerful and engaging marketing platform to promote products in line with her own personal purchasing ethics and the ethics of a very large, and growing, group of savvy consumers — whilst at the same time making it easier for filmmakers, production designers, set decorators and prop people to find geographically correct, socially conscious, and green products for use in their films. Drawing from her experience in business management as a freelance consultant and as managing director for GreenBox Films, along with her experience in the national and international experiential marketing realm as a manager for Becker Group (for such clients as Westfield Group, Macerich, Emaar Properties, TLC, Radio Shack, Curtis Publishing and many others), Bell combined the sum of her experience to launch Green Product Placement. Bell has spoken nationally and internationally on the subjects of sustainable marketing, production, and entrepreneurship and has written for Triple Pundit.
Thank you so much for joining us Beth! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?
My background is in film and TV production, along with theatre and event production. I have been an IATSE Studio Mechanic Union member for 29 years, and worked mostly in set decoration, set dressing and props, the primary departments typically on the receiving end of product placement deliveries to a production. I’ve also worked in marketing and business consulting.
The idea for the company was actually a bona-fide “lightbulb moment”. In the spring of 2011, I had an online conversation with Morgan Spurlock, on TED.com, when he was promoting his documentary, “Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” It was a Saturday — I was on Facebook, sitting at the dining room table, with a cup of coffee. Morgan, who was a friend of a friend at the time, posted he’d be over on TED.com, promoting his new movie, “Pom Wonderful.”
I said that I was familiar with brand product placement from years in set decorating and dressing, and sponsorships from years in the marketing business, so asked him how a production could align itself with only good brands. In 1998, I was the assistant set decorator on “Runaway Bride.” We had to do the “Curl Up and Dye” beauty salon. Even then, my boss, who was very sensitive to smells and chemical ingredients, was asking about getting natural brands to dress into the salon. The product-placement companies at the time only had the chemical-laden conventional brands, so we approached a few natural brands ourselves, and that planted the seed. Even back then, there was some interest in the production community for placement of better brands. There was some back and forth, and then Morgan typed, “I think you found your next career :-)”. And yes, he did type a smiley face!
I did some research, and indeed, there was no company that specialized specifically in placing and promoting these types of products, and certainly none of the existing product-placement companies had the goal of raising the profile of specifically green brands, changing consumer buying habits for the better, or giving back as part of their reason for doing business. I knew that I had to “do this.”
I wrote Morgan back and said I was going for it! He was excited and supportive and loved that the idea for this new company grew out of a simple Saturday online conversation. We launched in 2012.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway that you took out of that story?
I’ve had a long career, so I’ve got a lot of stories! I do have a recent story, however, that is rather amusing. Every year we schedule regular meetings with studios in Hollywood to do a “show and tell” of our current brands and then get a review of their roster coming up in the next six to nine months to see which productions might be a good match for our brands. Over the years, we meet with many of the same people and many of them have become friends.
We meet with a physical production executive at Amazon, a really nice guy. A couple of years ago, as he was going through his roster, and the subject of “The Man in the High Castle” came up because it was going to be going into pre-production. Obviously, a production that takes place in an alternate reality of the early ’60s, an America if the Axis powers had won WWII, would not have any use to place our modern-day green products, but I commented on what a big fan of the show I was.
I mentioned that at the first Women’s March in DC, in January 2017, I carried a protest sign which had the poster from the series — the one with the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor giving the Nazi salute with a huge swastika banner, on which I had added language, in big red letters, “I thought this was supposed to be fiction.” Carrying that sign at the march garnered plenty of attention from fans of the show, with my picture and the sign ending up in The Washington Post. I jokingly told him that I had done this as a homage, as I am a big fan of the show, it was for my personal use and I, in no way, meant any copyright infringement!
Our contact at Amazon laughed really hard and asked to see pictures. I then sent him the picture from The Washington Post as well. It was shared widely among the entire show — at least the crew — from the showrunner (who loved it), as well as the sustainability supervisor, who is based in Vancouver, where the show is filmed. The next month, I attended a production community Earth Hour event in NY and met the sustainability supervisor in town from Canada to attend the event. She and I had only been LinkedIn connected at that point and this was our first time meeting in person. She told me that she got an email with my picture of me with my sign, at the march, and that it had been sent out to the entire show’s email list!
The next year, when we had our meeting, our contact at Amazon told me that he had been at a dinner event attended by Philip K. Dick’s daughter (the show is based on his novel), and he told her about me and my sign at The Women’s March. He had thoughtfully printed out the email response from her, which said something to the effect of, “This is why we do this!”
To me, this story illustrated several things — the first one being that the movie and TV business is a really small world, and all of us in it know that to be true. Secondly, it’s the chain reaction impact that the arts can have in society. A novel is written that is turned into a television show. Me, as a fan of the show, uses it to make a statement about the modern-day political atmosphere in a tongue in cheek way, the way I see it. My statement then ends up in a widely viewed newspaper and the message is even further disseminated among industry insiders.
Lastly, it helps when you’re a real consumer of the “product” that you make. I always say that a person should enjoy and have an appreciation for what they do, even if it’s not something where you are personally a participant. Other examples of this would be chefs who appreciate the meals and dishes made by others, athletes that admire games or tournaments played by other teams or fellow athletes or people who work in the non-profit sector who greatly appreciate what others in their field are also accomplishing. When we show deep gratitude for the good works of others, we all lift each other up.
What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?
When I was young and in college, I thought it was wealthy people who got to travel, until a friend of mine, who was a year ahead, managed to save enough money by living at home to travel to Europe. When I graduated, I did the same. I always said that I learned almost as much traveling on my own than I did in school. Not strictly true in all aspects, but doing something, anything, to grow your perspective on the world around you is extremely valuable. It helps you solve problems, it helps you see the common thread of humanity and it refreshes your perspective.
As a young person, you may go through a few career starts before you find what you’re really passionate about. However, those other career experiences should never be seen as wasted time — everything you do adds to your life experience and adds more to your skillsets that you can use later. A few years ago, my high school (Baltimore School for the Arts) was having an anniversary. As part of the celebrations, they invited select alumni to come back and give a short 8-minute TED-style talk about what they were doing with their lives now and how BSA had played a part. I gave a presentation about my business. When I attended the school, I was a theatre major in the first class to be admitted as they didn’t have an official design and production department yet. When I left the school, I never set foot on stage as an actor again, but the skills that I learned about going on stage and speaking to an audience have served me to this day. I’ve given presentations here in the U.S. and in Europe, and every time I get in front of an audience, I’m very grateful for those skills that I learned in school. Experience and learning are gifts that help you develop both into yourself and in your value as an entrepreneur, a leader and a human being!
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Years ago, I worked on the Robert Redford directed film, “Quiz Show.” On that shoot, I befriended a young woman who was working props, Melissa Cohen, going by her deceased father’s name “Stanley.” With a male name, she would get on the overhire list for grip and electric, two very male-dominated fields, and then get called into work. Of course, the people hiring her thought she was a guy, but she’d show up and pull her weight. She worked in almost all of the production crafts at some point and then started working in the production office, eventually working her way up the ladder at a much younger age than many.
In her mid 30’s, Stanley got stage IV breast cancer. Although cancer ran in her family, the more research she did, the more she learned that environmental factors can play a significant role. She went about clearing out all of the chemicals from her house and changed her diet significantly. She fought a valiant fight for three years — twice as long as the doctors said she had. Her last months of work and life found her on a production yet again, “Step Up 2: The Streets.” She passed away while the show was in production. There is a dedication to her in the credits.
Before Melissa, I was already the type of person to eat a lot of vegetables and use mostly natural products. However, once I lost Melissa in my life, I made it a point in my life to only use non-toxic cleaning products, bath and body and makeup and look for ways to decrease exposure to harmful substances in all areas of my life. It’s important that the film and TV Industry clean up both in front of the camera and behind it. Health and sustainability are intrinsically linked.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
When I first started my agency, it was with the idea that there was a need in the production world for set decorators and props people to go to one agency to find natural brands to place. Initially, I thought it was a “win” when we got exposure for a local, organic vodka on an HBO sitcom (vs. a conventional brand), but once some of our products started getting exposure that were behavior-related, I realized that this was not only a boost for the brands being shown, but also for the change they represent.
When the lead character on “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce” was shown cleaning out her fridge, and composting the food waste (in one of our Full Circle Home compost bins), not only was it a boost for the brand, it was an implied a behavior suggestion that food waste should be composted instead of landfilled. One of the lead characters on “Blindspot” has one of our sustainable bamboo bicycles hanging in his apartment. This bicycle is part of a recurring “standing set” which has been seen for multiple seasons — the implication is that when he’s not at work, he gets around Brooklyn on his bamboo bike.
And then, of course, there are other everyday products, like water bottles. I’m sure you’ve seen several brands of the disposable plastic water bottles that get placed by other agencies. In contrast, we’ve placed our clients’ reusable water bottles in many TV shows and films. Again, this is “making green normal” through media product placement.
My agency is the only mission-based product placement agency in ERMA (The Entertainment Resources Marketing Association), the Hollywood-based organization of product placement professionals. We’ve aligned ourselves with others working in film and TV production to make it more sustainable. We’re also the only product placement agency listed in The Producers’ Guild of America’s Green Guide, and the UK’s We Are Albert Green Guide.
To that end, we work with causes in the green production space. For example, we were one of the sponsors for Earth Angel Hour in NYC each year it was held. We also support film festivals, like the DC Environmental Film Festival, along with charitable events like the Farm Sanctuary’s annual fundraiser.
Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
As I discussed above, the idea for my agency came to me as a moment of inspiration as it brought together what I am passionate about and combined the skills I acquired over my career. I’ve spent decades working in production, 10 years working in marketing, and several years doing business consulting and managing a small production company. So what do you do, when that’s your career experience, but you care deeply about a more sustainable future? When I had that conversation with Morgan, I really couldn’t believe there wasn’t an agency in ERMA like that already, to be honest.
Of course, I initially started the organization to benefit and be convenient for production people, but I realized that what I was setting out to do had an important place in not only shaping consumer behavior positively but also accurately portraying changing consumer behaviors as they are occurring in real life. The more I immersed myself, the more I learned how product placement works on unconscious memory through brand recognition and decision making, I realized that what we were doing could have a much larger impact. I learned that the United Nations Ecologic Panel recommended that the way to increase sustainable consumption and behaviors with consumers is through association with celebrity and making these products and behaviors seem “the norm”.
We know product placement works as an effective marketing tool — the largest, conventional, high-performing multinationals have been doing it for decades, and they continue to do it, and they’re all household names. Why can’t we make being a more sustainable, lower-impact consumer more “normal,” using this same method?
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
One of the very first placements we did was for a local, artisanal vodka based on the east coast. Their logo is a great vintage-looking WWII bomber plane pin-up art that we placed in an Emmy-winning sitcom. Although the bottles that were placed in the bar scene were never seen, their life-sized poster was dressed into one of the lead character’s apartment set. A viewer in California was so intrigued that she looked up the name of the vodka, contacted the brand, and asked where their product could be purchased in California. We would say, “Score 1, small, local artisanal vodka made with organic ingredients, score 0, large, multinational conventional vodka brand.”
Other times, some of our health and beauty brands will send “seeding” samples for behind the scenes with make-up and hair departments when they’re placing them on camera. We have one particular brand, 100% Pure, which has become a real favorite of makeup artists, which is made with plant-based coloring and is indeed 100% pure, like the name. Sometimes, we’ll be contacted by these makeup artists even if they’re on a show that might not be appropriate for onscreen exposure, and we’re happy to facilitate samples being sent to them. Regarding the story, I shared about my friend Melissa, and environmental toxins, think about performers who spend all day in cosmetics. So many makeup artists still use brands that are tested on animals and contain chemical additives, that we love doing our part to try and “green” the hair and makeup trailer as well.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Individuals can respond when they see positive examples of sustainable behavior or greener brands on TV or in movies. Mention these brands on social media — tag the production, network, studio, and brand. Let them know that you want to see more in the content that you watch. This response helps the brands placing product and informs the content makers that the public wants to see more of this type of influential placement!
What society can do is to follow the example and keep pushing the movement forward. Finally, better brands are getting more shelf space in conventional retail, now, help keep them in business. If you don’t see your favorite green brand in your local supermarket or drugstore, ask the management if they can start carrying it.
Lastly, call the networks and content makers out on that all-powerful social media when you see them not setting a good example onscreen. Single-use plastic water bottles, Styrofoam carryout containers, conventional cleaners, fast food companies with a less than stellar carbon footprint, etc. are not things that should be held up as examples. You know how you can take to twitter when you get bad customer service from a company? You can do the same by calling out content producers for showing behaviors and products that could be seen as not sustainable.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
Any entrepreneur will tell you that starting a new paradigm-shifting business is not for the faint of heart. For those of us that went to an arts school instead of a business school, figuring out what it really is like, we learn from previous work experience and the School of Hard Knocks.
A pretty classic miscalculation is the “hockey stick” business projection. Many businesses will do their initial business plan in such a way that they anticipate their growth as unrealistically optimistic. If you start out bootstrapping, with maybe a small family fundraise, but you still have a day job, it will be more like a gradual incline with some dips and valleys along the way.
When I set out to draw up an initial business plan, much of how we would begin to grow the business — how we would market, attract clients, align with studios and productions, all went fairly close to plan. The one thing I didn’t account for was that I would also be working 5–10 months of the year, full time, as a production set dresser on a television show, as I worked to grow the business. So with the business being a “side hustle,” rather than a main hustle, the time building the business is drawn out so that it’s really equivalent to a half or even a third, of the actual time that has elapsed. This lesson, in a nutshell, is to be very, very conservative with how much you think you can earn, and how quickly you think those earnings will climb significantly.
The second lesson speaks to the not being faint of heart. A couple of years in, I read a quote by Randi Zuckerberg. It was something to the effect of, “You want to be an entrepreneur? You can have either time with friends, taking care of your health/exercise or time with your family — pick two”. I have found this to be one of the most accurate pieces of advice I read. There are only so many hours in any given day, and especially if you are bootstrapping, your time is everything. Don’t expect life to be what it was like when you just worked for somebody else and could leave “it” at the office, studio or warehouse when you got home. You’ll constantly be thinking of what you have to get done, and how to fit it all into just 24 hours in a day. And everyone, no matter what their job is, needs time to decompress. My example? Well, I’m writing out this reply at quarter to 9 on a Saturday night after spending all day at a Natural Products Expo.
The third item has to do with being an older entrepreneur. The start-up community tends to skew rather young, these days. There are still a number of people who start businesses in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s — AARP Magazine even had a feature on this once, but generally, many of the more well-known entrepreneurs you encounter and hear about start in their 30’s, and some in their 20’s. You know how tough it can be, as I explained in “lesson 2”. If you’re older, you’ll also have to juggle life stressors like children or aging parents or even your health issues, along with all of the business-related ones. People younger than you can offer valuable connections, advice and insight. We just added an Advisory Board that includes magnificent millennial members like John Rutherford Seydel, who was voted a “30 under 30” by Green Biz, is head of sustainability for the City of Atlanta, and is an entrepreneur and climate leader, along with Asher Jay, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and media personality who is a very successful conservation artist. Always be open to getting advice from successful leaders of all ages.
My fourth lesson is one of those lessons that I learned by spending years and years working in production: always have a plan B, and sometimes even a plan C. Things can go wrong, Murphy’s Law does exist, and life, and business, can be unpredictable! When I worked on large, traveling, experiential marketing tours, I saw carefully laid out schedules have issues because of one broken-down tractor-trailer. What happens when those custom sofas the decorator orders for something that shoots in a couple of weeks gets delayed at the factory? The best-laid plans don’t always work out the way you planned them. It’s always good to have an, “if that doesn’t work, we can try this” at least partially figured out when you’re working on not only large projects but small ones, too. I always found that when something doesn’t go according to plan, I allow myself a couple of minutes to calm, and then let that go and start working on either the backup plan or the solution.
The last one is one that I could not have foreseen in 2012, when Barack Obama was president, before Brexit, before Climate Change deniers made their way into every segment of the government, and that is that politics can have a profound effect on business. That was also the year that Hurricane Sandy happened and did unprecedented damage to the Mid-Atlantic and New York City. Those types of storms would be commonplace, happening somewhere, every year since. In 2015, I was lucky enough to be in Paris during COP21 and attend the World Climate Summit and the next day Earth to Paris. By the time I got home, officials at Le Bourget were signing that historic document. Those of us that cared about sustainability, sustainable business growth and a healthy future on earth all let out a sigh of relief. Since then, the environment for smaller, sustainability-focused businesses has taken a hit. Meanwhile, more and more environmental disasters are happening year after year. I really could not have predicted how challenging times would become for companies that are less than some large conventional multinational type of company. So the lesson is, before starting anything, look at the market and environment for your kind of business and decide if the market will welcome your idea.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If you look at some of the most impactful social and environmental leaders in the news right now, you see that their movements have emerged from a very simple idea that grows larger and that these people are working in the middle of the arena that they know well. The two that immediately spring to mind are Greta Thunberg and José Andrés. Thunberg took a simple Friday school strike for climate and grew it into a worldwide movement. Andrés knows how to feed people. His restaurants serve delicious food, but he’s taken his skills in an impactful direction to help people in need with his World Central Kitchen.
I would like there to be an international organization or alliance to make TV and film production more sustainable. This alliance would link all of the localized organizations, by country, to green vendors and service providers to, say, a US-based Hollywood production that was shooting in Australia or vice versa. I have spoken to people about this possibility who are working to make film and TV more sustainable in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Europe and the Middle East. Over the course of growing my business, I’ve also made contact with people in the movement in Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and India. I even wrote an article about some of these initiatives for Triple Pundit. Each country currently has their own system, green vendor production guides, and their service providers, but productions shoot all over the world. The World Bank has its Film4Climate and Connect for Climate and an international organization like them, or the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, would be great to take ownership of starting anInternational Sustainable Production Alliance that would officially unite us to search by country for resources, green vendors and personnel. Best practices could be shared more widely than they are now. There is some sharing between the U.S., Canada and the U.K., but no one central site or organization.
I also think that sustainability needs to be added to the curriculum of film schools worldwide. Film and TV could be a model for a sustainable future both behind the camera and in front of it — an example of how to transition a major industry from old models to forward-looking ones.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
One of my first jobs out of college was at a scene shop that built scenery, and did props for commercials, industrials, opera, and we even built a 3-D utility vehicle for the band Midnight Oil’s “Diesel and Dust” tour. The horn section stood in it, and I’ll never forget going to drop it off, set it up and turn it over to the tour people for the first time. The Tour Manager paid us in cash, from ticket sales. I was a big fan of the band at the time, so this was a really big deal.
Anyway, the wife of one of the people who worked there was a costumer and she used to have a saying, that I go back to time and time again, “finished is better than perfect.”
It was a costume designer that she had once worked with who said it to her. In the production world, which works on near-impossible deadlines, this means, of course, ready for the shoot, event, theatre opening, but maybe with a flaw or two that no one will ever see, is way better than not being ready at all. In the larger sense, it means that when you want to do something, just get out there and try to do it. In intricate Islamic design, they always put in a flaw or two (again, that no one will ever notice), because in their belief system, only Allah is seen as perfect. No matter what you do, there will always be one or two things that you might have felt need improvement, but they should not keep you from pushing forward and doing what you want to do. (Obviously, brain surgeons and rocket scientists should not take this saying too literally!)
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
There are many people that I admire in this arena, but, without a doubt, I would absolutely love to share a meal with Leonardo Dicaprio. I was actually on-set for “J. Edgar,” before I founded my company. I worked as a local set dresser when J Edgar (Leo), proposes to his fiancé (Naomi Watts). I walked right by him once or twice while he was in costume, and I seem to remember him wearing brown contacts for the role, plus he gained weight for the role and at first I thought he was his own stand-in.
My reasons for wanting to meet with him are many; he’s been such a champion for the environment, using his wealth gained through a successful entertainment career to start his namesake foundation. Just last month, his foundation gifted a $5 million endowment to Earth Alliance to help with the Amazon forest fires. Through his work, he’s been a very eloquent spokesperson for the environment, speaking at high profile events like Davos and because of his fame and his gift as an orator, these speeches get shared widely on social media and news sites.
He’s also a very successful producer, with his own production company, Appian Way, which produced the Environmental Documentary “Before the Flood,” along with acclaimed films such as “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
In addition, he’s an investor in assorted fair trade and eco-friendly businesses, such as Diamond Foundry, which makes zero-carbon, conflict-free, cultured diamonds, and Aspiration, which provides users with a socially conscious alternative to traditional banks.
He is someone who has parlayed an extremely successful acting career (and rightfully so, he’s one of the finest actors of our time), into a platform to create real positive change in the world. For any business in the sustainable production sector, he’s the holy grail of personalities to get behind one’s cause. Leo, if you’re reading this, lunch is on me!
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!