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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Kars4Kids, YouTube
The Cruel (But Effective) Agony of the Kars4Kids Jingle
Kars4Kids, YouTube
Kars4Kids, YouTube

It can happen suddenly and without warning. Driving in your vehicle, a commercial break comes on. In addition to the standard pleas to use a specific laundry detergent or contemplate debt consolidation, the voice of a preadolescent, out-of-tune child materializes. Your grip on the steering wheel gets tighter. The child begins to warble:

1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kars for Kids, 1-EIGHT-SEVEN-SEVEN-Kars-4-Kids, Donate Your Car Today …

An adult breaks in to repeat the lyrics. The two begin to sing in unison:

1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kaaaaars for Kiiiids…Donate Your Car Today!

In roughly a minute, it’s over. You go on with your day. But the song’s repetitive melody sticks to your brain like sap. You hear it when preparing dinner. While brushing your teeth. As you put your head on the pillow. When it's finally worked its way out of your brain and you've started to forget, it reappears.

The song is engineered to be obnoxious. And its producers wouldn't have it any other way.

 
 

Since 1999, an untold number of Americans have found themselves reduced to mewling heaps of distress following exposure to the Kars4Kids jingle. The 501(c) nonprofit organization based in Lakewood, New Jersey, spends up to $17 million annually making sure this earwig of a commercial is played across the country. While the purpose is not expressly to annoy you, the fact that the song is irritating is what makes it memorable. And successful. And more than a little controversial.

Kars4Kids began in 1995 as a way to capitalize on the trend of automotive owners donating their unwanted cars in exchange for a tax deduction. Owners who donate their vehicles are able to get an IRS write-off—though typically for only a percentage of the current value—if they declare it a charitable donation. Kars4Kids arranges for the vehicle to be towed away and sold at auction, with proceeds going to afterschool and summer programs for students.

According to the organization, business was slow until one of their volunteers had an idea to craft a commercial song. The melody was purchased from a singer and songwriter named Country Yossi, and Kars4Kids enlisted a child to perform it at an in-house recording session. It debuted in the New York market in 1999, and spread like the plague to the West Coast by 2005 and nationally by 2007.

Aside from Yossi, however, the company has repeatedly declined to identify anyone else involved with creating the song. The reason? Death threats. The tune has apparently enraged people to the point of contemplating murder. Speaking to SanFranciscoGate.com in 2016, music cognition expert Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis said that the combination of repetitive structure and the overly simplistic message was engineered to grate the listener's nerves.

“This simple melodic line is also probably responsible for some of the annoyance,” she said. “These kinds of three and four note lines are often the ones specially crafted for kids learning how to play instruments ... It probably conjures up associations of painful practice sessions.”

 
 

The line between irritating and memorable is often blurry. Kars4Kids has repeatedly pointed to the song as being effective in driving telephone traffic to their number. When they debuted a television commercial in 2014—complete with lip-syncing kids who subsequently got bullied for their participation in the spot—donations went up by 50 percent. To date, the company has received 450,000 cars. In 2017, contributions totaled $39 million.

Surprisingly, people have reserved animosity for something other than the commercial. In 2017, Minnesota's attorney general chastised Kars4Kids for not making it clear to donors that many of the children who benefit from the fundraising are located in the northeast: Kids in Minnesota received just $12,000 of the $3 million raised in that state. Other times, the organization has been criticized for leaving information out of their solicitations. In 2009, both Pennsylvania and Oregon fined the charity for failing to disclose a religious affiliation. (Most of the funds raised go toward Orthodox Jewish groups.) Oregon’s Department of Justice said that Kars4Kids needed to disclose such information in its ads.

Those speed bumps aside, the jingle shows no signs of leaving the airwaves any time soon. Rather than run from the negative response, Kars4Kids marinates in it, sharing hateful diatribes from others on social media.

“Newer people join the [media] team and when they are first exposed to the level of hatred on Twitter they'll be like, 'Are you sure you think this is a good idea that we should keep on playing this?,'" Wendy Kirwan, Kars4Kids’s director of public relations, told Billboard in 2016. “And we've looked at that time and again, and we've come to the conclusion that it's definitely worth sticking with.”

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Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
How Frozen Peas Made Orson Welles Lose It
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

Orson Welles would have turned 103 years old today. While the talented actor/director/writer leaves behind a staggering body of work—including Citizen Kane, long regarded as the best film of all time—the YouTube generation may know him best for what happened when a couple of voiceover directors decided to challenge him while recording an ad for Findus frozen foods in 1970.

The tempestuous Welles is having none of it. You’d do yourself a favor to listen to the whole thing, but here are some choice excerpts.

After he was asked for one more take from the audio engineer:

"Look, I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest … Who the hell are you, anyway?"

After it was explained to him that the second take was requested because of a “slight gonk”:

"What is a 'gonk'? Do you mind telling me what that is?"

After the director asks him to emphasize the “in” while saying “In July”:

"Why? That doesn't make any sense. Sorry. There's no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with 'in' and emphasize it. … That's just stupid. 'In July?' I'd love to know how you emphasize 'in' in 'in July.' Impossible! Meaningless!"

When the session moved from frozen peas to ads for fish fingers and beef burgers, the now-sheepish directors attempt to stammer out some instructions. Welles's reply:

"You are such pests! ... In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

Why would the legendary director agree to shill for a frozen food company in the first place? According to author Josh Karp, whose book Orson Welles’s Last Movie chronicles the director’s odyssey to make a “comeback” film in the 1970s, Welles acknowledged the ad spots were mercenary in nature: He could demand upwards of $15,000 a day for sessions, which he could use, in part, to fund his feature projects.

“Why he dressed down the man, I can't say for sure,” Karp says. “But I know that he was a perfectionist and didn't suffer fools, in some cases to the extreme. He used to take a great interest in the ads he made, even when they weren't of his creation.”

The Findus session was leaked decades ago, popping up on radio and in private collections before hitting YouTube. Voiceover actor Maurice LaMarche, who voiced the erudite Brain in Pinky and the Brain, based the character on Welles and would recite his rant whenever he got the chance.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70 from a heart attack, his last film unfinished. While some saw the pea endorsement as beneath his formidable talents, he was actually ahead of the curve: By the 1980s, many A-list stars were supplementing their income with advertising or voiceover work.

“He was a brilliant, funny guy,” Karp says. “There's a good chance he'd think the pea commercial was hilarious.” If not, he’d obviously have no problem saying as much.

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