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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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