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The Stories Behind 10 Famous Product Placements

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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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
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#TBT
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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