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The Stories Behind 10 Famous Product Placements

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1. Junior Mints, Seinfeld

"Who's gonna turn down a Junior Mint? It's chocolate, it's peppermint, it's delicious!" Were truer words ever spoken? But it might not have been that way—other candy companies were originally asked for permission to place their product in that episode. Not seeing the humor in having their bread-and-butter fall into the open chest cavity of a patient, Seinfeld was turned down by M&Ms and Lifesavers (among others) before finally getting to the Junior Mint people. No money exchanged hands between Tootsie Roll (Junior Mints' parent company) and Seinfeld. With the amount of product exposure Junior Mints gained from that episode, that's quite a deal. Watch a clip here.

2. Reese's Pieces, E.T.

Between Seinfeld and E.T., M&Ms has really missed some huge marketing opportunities (not that the company is exactly hurting). The rumor is that Mars, Inc., just didn't think this was a worthwhile movie on which to spend their advertising dollars, but no one has ever substantiated that fact. Whatever the reason is, it was a big mistake—Mars' competitor, Hershey, snapped up the opportunity to promote Reese's Pieces. Hershey agreed to spend $1 million promoting E.T. in exchange for the rights to use E.T. in its ads. The payoff was huge—the delightful little peanut butter candies (can you tell I like Reese's Pieces?) saw a reported 65% jump in profits just two weeks after the movie's premiere.

3. Ray-Ban, Risky Business

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I used to love that episode of Saved by the Bell when Zack, Slater and Screech are home alone and they bust out some Risky Business-style moves wearing socks and using brooms as guitars. Anyway. Back to Business. At the time, the Wayfarer sunglasses Tom Cruise modeled in that movie were pretty much biting the dust. Annual sales were only about 18,000. After Tom Cruise wore them in the movie (and on the cover of the movie) in 1983, sales skyrocketed to 360,000. By 1989, Ray-Ban had sold more than four million of the Wayfarer model. A bit of trivia for you: Audrey Hepburn wore Wayfarers in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Don Johnson wore them in Miami Vice, Bruce Willis wore them in Moonlighting and ol' Tom Cruise tried them on again for Top Gun. Why such the gap between Audrey and the 80's revival? Well, in 1982, Ray-Ban inked a contract with a product placement company: $50,000 per year to put Ray-Bans in movies and television.

4. Fed-Ex, Cast Away

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You cannot escape the product placement of Fed-Ex in Cast Away. It's literally everywhere. And what great publicity—when Fed-Ex manager Chuck Noland washes up on a deserted island, he collects all of the Fed-Ex boxes that washed up with him. While he ends up opening most of them to aid in his survival on the island, he leaves one unopened and returns it to its rightful owner when he makes it back to land many years later. How's that for reliability? CEO Fred Smith even had a cameo in the movie. And what did Fed-Ex pay for all of this? Absolutely nothing. They were reluctant to allow their image and brand to be used at first—the plane crash scene really bothered them. But ultimately, they decided that the movie had a good message and the brand awareness they would get would be worth it.

5. Reebok, Jerry Maguire

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This one should be titled "When product placement goes bad." If you think back hard enough, you will remember that Cuba Gooding, Jr's character, Rod Tidwell, held a grudge against Reebok for the entire movie because Reebok wouldn't use him in their ads. Reebok provided more than $1.5 million in merchandise, ads and promotional materials to be featured in the movie because they thought the ending of the movie would be a little different. Over the closing credits, a fake Reebok commercial was supposed to be shown with Reebok saying, "Rod Tidwell. We ignored him for years. We were wrong. We're sorry." However, that scene got cut. So Reebok ended up investing $1.5 million to have their brand disparaged for a couple of hours. They sued and TriStar pictures settled out-of-court for an undisclosed amount.

6. White Castle, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

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The other day, Higgins posted about deal-breaker books. I could see this being a deal-breaker movie, but I'll admit it anyway—I love Harold and Kumar. (White Castle is OK.) Because of its national recognition, Krispy Kreme was also approached to play a role in the movie. Krispy Kreme was not thrilled by the idea of the brand being so closely associated with a Cheech-and-Chong-esque movie and turned them down. White Castle had no qualms about being featured and even agreed to promote the film with collectible cups, radio ads and signage. They didn't pay a dime for product placement, however.

7. Staples, The Office

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Anyone who is a fan of The Office knows that Staples is Dunder-Mifflin's biggest competitor. That's not just a mere coincidence. The Office has product placement deals with Staples, Hewlett Packard and Activision's Call of Duty computer game, among others. But the Staples deal is undoubtedly the one that is referenced the most. Not only is the brand mentioned as DM's biggest competitor, but Staples products are shown in virtually every episode. Look closely next time you watch and you could find anything from Staples-brand blank CDs to Staples-brand fax paper. A Staples shredder was even an integral part of one episode, where Kevin demonstrates the power of the shredder by using it to make a salad. While I wasn't able to find how much Staples coughs up to be featured so prominently in the show, it's clear that they are very proud of their affiliation. When one episode featured Dwight quitting his job at Staples to return to Dunder Mifflin, Staples released this memo. A company with a sense of humor? Makes me want to buy my pens there.

8. BMW Z3, GoldenEye

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James Bond is apparently one of the most powerful car salesmen in the world. After driving Aston Martins for years, 007 found himself equipped with a BMW Z3 Roadster in 1995's GoldenEye. Sure, it cost them $3 million, but people saw the movie and fell in love with the Roadster. BMW made $240 million in advance sales alone.

9. Slinky, Etch-a-Sketch, Mr. Potato Head; Toy Story

I am a testament to the power of the product placement in Toy Story. But I'll get to that in a minute. When the movie came out in 1995, classic toys like Mr. Potato Head and Slinky weren't doing so great. After being featured as characters in the Pixar/Disney film, sales soared immediately. Etch-a-Sketch saw a 4500% boost. Slinkys were no longer being produced because they weren't profitable. Post-Toy Story, Slinky received 20,000 orders, which revitalized the company. Mr. Potato Head sales jumped 800%. And that's where I come in. I am a sucker for those big displays at Disney World and Disneyland where you can go through the bin of Potato Head parts and shove as many will fit into a box for $19. I have a ridiculous number of parts, from Tinkerbell's wings to Dumbo's ears to Cruella DeVil's purse. That's double branding right there. Genius.

10. Nuprin, Doritos, Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Reebok; Wayne's World

Finally, we get to my favorite. The fact that I just rattled off all of the brands featured in this brief clip from a movie that came out 16 years ago just goes to show you how effective product placement can be.

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Paw Enforcement: A History of McGruff the Crime Dog
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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jack Keil, executive creative director of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was stuck in a Kansas City airport at three in the morning when he started thinking about Smokey Bear. Smokey was the furred face of forest fire prevention, an amiable creature who cautioned against the hazards of unattended campfires or errant cigarette butts. Everyone, it seemed, knew Smokey and heeded his words.

In 1979, Keil’s agency had been tasked with coming up with a campaign for the recently-instituted National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a nonprofit organization looking to educate the public about crime prevention. If Keil could create a Smokey for their mission, he figured he would have a hit. He considered an elephant who could stamp out crime, or a rabbit who was hopping mad about illegal activity.

A dog seemed to fit. Dogs bit things, and the NCPC was looking to take a bite out of crime. Keil sketched a dog reminiscent of Snoopy with a Keystone Cop-style hat.

Back at the agency, people loved the idea but hated the dog. In a week’s time, the cartoon animal would morph into McGruff, the world-weary detective who has raised awareness about everything from kidnapping to drug abuse. While he no longer looked like Snoopy, he was about to become just as famous.

In 1979, the public service advertising nonprofit the Ad Council held a meeting to discuss American paranoia. Crime was a hot button issue, with sensational reports about drugs, home invasions, and murders taking up the covers of major media outlets like Newsweek and TIME. Surveys reported that citizens were concerned about crime rates and neighborhood safety. Respondents felt helpless to do anything, since more law enforcement meant increased taxes.

To combat public perception, the Ad Council wanted to commit to an advertising campaign that would act as a preventive measure. Crime could not be stopped, but the feeling was that it could be dented with more informed communities. Maybe a clean park would be less inviting to criminals; people might need to be reminded to lock their doors.

What people did not need was a lecture. So the council enlisted Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to organize a campaign that promoted awareness in the most gentle way possible. Keil's colleagues weighed in on his dog idea; someone suggested that the canine be modeled after J. Edgar Hoover, another saw a Superman-esque dog that would fly in to interrupt crime. Sherry Nemmers and Ray Krivascy offered an alternative take: a dog wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigar, modeled in part after Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

Keil had designs on getting Falk to voice the animated character, but the actor’s methodical delivery wasn’t suited to 30-second commercials, so Keil did it himself. His scratchy voice lent an authoritarian tone, but wasn't over-the-top.

The agency ran a contest on the back of cereal boxes to name the dog. “Sherlock Bones” was the most common submission, but "McGruff"—which was suggested by a New Orleans police officer—won out.

Armed with a look, a voice, and a name, Nemmers arranged for a series of ads to run in the fall of 1980. In the spots, McGruff was superimposed over scenes of a burglary and children wary of being kidnapped by men in weather-beaten cars. He advised people to call the police if they spotted something suspicious—like strangers taking off with the neighbor’s television or sofa—and to keep their doors locked. He sat at a piano and sang “users are losers” in reference to drug-abusing adolescents. (The cigar had been scrapped.)

Most importantly, the NCPC—which had taken over responsibility for McGruff's message—wanted the ads to have what the industry dubbed “fulfillment.” At the end, McGruff would advise viewers to write to a post office box for a booklet on how to prevent crime in their neck of the woods.

A lot of people did just that. More than 30,000 booklets went out during the first few months the ads aired. McGruff’s laconic presence was beginning to take off.

By 1988, an estimated 99 percent of children ages six to 12 recognized McGruff, putting him in Ronald McDonald territory. He appeared on the ABC series Webster, in parades, and in thousands of personal appearances around the country, typically with a local police officer under the suit. (The appearances were not without danger: Some dogs apparently didn't like McGruff and could get aggressive at the sight of him.)

As McGruff aged into the 1990s, his appearances grew more sporadic. The NCPC began targeting guns and drugs and wasn’t sure the cartoon dog was a good fit, so his appearances were limited to the end of some ad spots. By the 2000s, law enforcement cutbacks meant fewer cops in costume, and a reduced awareness of the crime-fighting canine. When Keil retired, an Iowa cop named Steve Parker took over McGruff's voice duties.

McGruff is still in action today, aiding in the NCPC’s efforts to raise awareness of elder abuse, internet crimes, and identity theft. The organization estimates that more than 4000 McGruffs are in circulation, though at least one of them failed to live up to the mantle. In 2014, a McGruff performer named John Morales pled guilty to possession of more than 1000 marijuana plants and a grenade launcher. He’s serving 16 years in prison.

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Jug Life: A History of the Kool-Aid Man
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Kraft

When Robert Skollar joined the General Foods marketing team at Grey Advertising in 1988, it didn’t take him long to realize that there were certain perks that came with the job. As the executive behind the Kool-Aid ad campaign, Skollar inherited the Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of sugar water that had been a staple of the brand for more than a decade.

Two stories stand out: The first, Skollar says, is when he was working late one night and decided to try on the Kool-Aid Man’s fiberglass costume for himself. It was like being inside a Christmas ornament. “It’s hard to hear anything in there,” Skollar tells Mental Floss. “You just hope you don’t fall down.”

The second was when Skollar got caught up in the trend of New York professionals putting on elaborate birthday parties for their kids. Skollar asked Richard Berg, the voice of Kool-Aid Man’s “Oh, Yeah!” catchphrase, to actually wear the costume for a personal appearance at his son’s sixth birthday party. (Normally, Berg just recorded the line.) “It was the voice in the costume, which was a first,” Skollar says. “And half the kids were frightened to death.”

Fortunately, that was hardly the typical reaction. Introduced in 1975, Kool-Aid Man became one of the most beloved characters in advertising history, with a recognition factor that sometimes outpaced that of Ronald McDonald. He got his own video game, his own comic book, and his own museum display in Hastings, Nebraska.

Not bad for someone who started out as a disembodied head.

By the time advertising executive Marvin Potts created a sentient pitcher of Kool-Aid in 1954, the powdered soft drink mix had been on shelves for 27 years. Conceived by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, as an alternative to glass bottle drinks—which were expensive to ship—what was then known as “Kool-Ade” became a cheap, popular way to flavor water.

When Perkins sold the brand to General Foods in 1953, their contracted advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding trialed a few different television spots. Potts’s idea—a large, bulbous container of Kool-Aid with an animated mouth and eyes named Pitcher Man—was the most popular. (Company lore says Perkins came up with the idea after watching his kid draw a smiley face on the condensation of a window.)

In the 1960s, Kool-Aid opted for celebrity spokespeople like The Monkees and Bugs Bunny, relegating Pitcher Man to the sidelines. “I think they found out Bugs was overwhelming the whole campaign,” Skollar says. “Kids would remember him but forget the ad was for Kool-Aid.”

That ceased to be a problem in 1975, when Alan Kupchick and Harold Karp at Grey Advertising developed the idea for Kool-Aid Man, an evolution of Pitcher Man. His face stopped moving, but the addition of arms and legs gave the character a more bombastic personality. It also allowed him to commit sensational acts of property destruction.

Skollar recalls that the iconic breaking-through-the-wall sequence wasn’t necessarily planned. “From what I’ve heard, someone on set said that Kool-Aid Man really had to make an entrance, and someone else, maybe a producer, suggested he come through the wall.” Breakaway bricks were set up, and the character's fiberglass shell—“the same material used for a Corvette Stingray,” Skollar says—effectively became a wrecking ball.

Although he was never officially named Kool-Aid Man at the time, the mascot helped propel sales of the drink mix. “It was a phenomenon,” Skollar says. “Here you had this 50-year-old product that’s not really convenient and not particularly healthy, and it’s huge.”

As Kool-Aid Man’s star grew, so did his opportunities to branch out. The property got its own Marvel comic—The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man—as well as an Atari 2600 video game. The latter could be redeemed with 125 points earned from purchasing Kool-Aid, which amounts to about 62.5 gallons of sugar water. (You could also send $10 with 30 points.)

When Skollar was handed control of the campaign in 1988, the advice was pretty clear. “It was basically: Don’t screw it up,” he says, “and make it more contemporary.”

Skollar says he took inspiration from Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the Peter Gabriel music video for "Sledgehammer" to conceive of an entire Kool-Aid Man universe—one bursting with frenetic activity that kids would find exciting and adults would find impenetrable.

“Most kid ads had a storyline at the time,” he says. “This didn’t. It was just surreal.”

This Lynchian Kool-Aid Man was no longer 7 years old, as previous marketing campaigns had implied, but 14 years old—old enough to play guitar and surf. Once naked, he now sported jeans and cool shirts. Skollar believes that the kinetic spots helped usher in a new wave of kid advertising that relied more on visceral, MTV-style cuts.

Not all of Kool-Aid’s efforts were focused on hyperactive kids, however. The drink mix was not without its controversies, having once been associated with the Jonestown massacre in 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid and Flavor Ade laced with cyanide. There was also the matter of Kool-Aid suggesting gobs of sugar be added to the drink for flavor.

“We did a campaign targeted to moms, ‘Having Kids Means Having Kool-Aid,’” Skollar says. “And we told them they could control the amount of sugar they used. We also pushed that Kool-Aid had Vitamin C.”

Under Skollar, Kool-Aid sales shot to third place in the soft drink category—behind only Coke and Pepsi.

Kool-Aid Man makes an appearance at the NASDAQ
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Skollar stayed on the Kool-Aid campaign through 1994, at which point the account was passed to Ogilvy & Mather. Eventually, the fiberglass costume became nylon and computer effects began to enhance his features.

CG was something Skollar had already started to experiment with, but eventually discarded it for the analog outfit. “There was something about that rawness, that awkward-looking pitcher breaking through walls,” he says.

One of the original costumes from 1975 sits in the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Hastings, Nebraska, a testament to the character’s enduring appeal. Skollar says he once had research data supporting the fact that over 90 percent of kids could recognize Kool-Aid Man on sight.

The same wasn’t necessarily true of adults. “I remember one time we were shooting an ad where Kool-Aid Man was walking over a hill at sunset, holding hands with a little girl,” he says. “And a junior brand executive taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘We can’t see his face. How will we know who he is?’”

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