5 Insidious Product Placements You Didn’t Even Notice
We’re fairly savvy about product placement nowadays. If you watch a new Jennifer Lawrence movie, and it’s about her having sex with some nerd in exchange for a Buick Regal, and every character keeps talking up the Buick Regal, and even after the car crashes, it bounces back and looks great because it’s a Buick Regal, we might well suspect that this production was partly funded by Buick, to advertise their Regal. Whatever, you say to yourself. At least someone’s funding new comedy movies, and also, maybe it’s time to buy a new car, perhaps a Buick Regal.
Sometimes, though, you see the movie but have no idea about the deal that took place behind-the-scenes. We have product placement to thank for...
The Entire Hollywood Presence of Diamonds
The diamond industry has always lied to make us think their crystals are worth something. They lied when they controlled the world’s supply to fool us into thinking diamonds are rare. They lied when they told us engagement rings are a thing, rather than something the diamond industry themselves invented. They lied when they convinced us we need gems that miners died for rather than ones grown in a lab, even though the two are now chemically and physically identical. Most underhanded of all, they lied when they told us diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” was originally written for the Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with no promotional consideration from the diamond cartel. When the musical became a 1953 movie starring Marilyn Monroe, however, De Beers sponsored the movie, through the advertising film N.W. Ayer.
The head of publicity at the firm, Dorothy Dignam, ensured that the song made it to the film, and she ensured that its tone change. In the play, you laughed at Carol Channing bragging about gold-digging in a jokey voice. In the movie, they had Monroe play this this song straight and more glamorously, even as the rest of the movie was still a comedy. The goal was for women to see this and think, “Yeah, I do want diamonds” (and for men to see it and have some sort of a reaction as well).
A bunch of other movies around the same time showed guys giving women diamonds. Always, it was because Ayer had stepped in and let the producer keep the diamond afterward in exchange for featuring it on-screen. We aren’t certain if Hollywood’s concurrent veneration of blondes was also due a business deal, with Big Hair Dye, but we have investigators on the case.
All Those 1980s Sunglasses
Everything we know about 1980s fashion comes from movies. This is true even if you were alive back then — you remember what you wore, barely, but Hollywood convinced you what the world at large wore. For example, remember Wayfarers? Everyone wore Wayfarer sunglasses back then. That’s why we saw so many movie characters wearing them, like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, Don Johnson in Miami Vice and Bruce Willis in Moonlighting.
Those characters weren’t reflecting the fashion of the time. They were causing it.
In 1982, Bausch & Lomb signed a deal to place Ray-Bans in 60 movies and TV shows. This deal cost them $50,000 a year. That’s practically nothing. In 1982, a single 30-second TV ad typically cost more than that to produce. In return for that tiny payment, Wayfarers and Aviators appeared on all those actors we just mentioned (and a bunch more). Sales increased almost a hundredfold over the course of the decade.
Today, we can all picture Tom Cruise wearing sunglasses while dancing in his underwear in Risky Business. Which is crazy, because though Bausch & Lomb paid to put Ray-Bans elsewhere in that movie, he isn’t actually wearing sunglasses in that scene.
Lockheed Martin Sponsored ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin sponsored the show NCIS: Los Angeles, which ended this year, leaving a mere eight other NCIS spin-offs still in production. No ads for the company aired during the show’s commercial breaks, but the program featured a lot of military equipment. This added up to product placement very different form the usual kind.
The viewers at home who watched NCIS: Los Angeles every week were in no position to buy Lockheed Martin equipment. People in the Pentagon make those decisions, and while some of them may well have watched NCIS, there are far more efficient ways of lobbying them than funding a CBS drama. Still, the company considered funding the show a good investment, and we have to assume this was through influencing its audience of millions. That’s a bit worrying.
You probably already know the Defense Department partners with shows and movies, letting them use military hardware so long as the Pentagon likes the scripts. We tend to object to this, when the government demands scripts change to praise the military, because that’s propaganda. Still, Lockheed Martin trying something similar feels worse. On one side, you’ve got the military recruiting, which is something they really do need to do. On the other, you have a company leaning back hoping that so long as they convince us planes are cool, we will always wage war and they will always make money.
‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ Brought to You by Coca-Cola
There’s a good reason you never noticed the Coke logos inserted into A Charlie Brown Christmas. The version you watched didn’t include them. Originally, however, the show did. What’s more, the only reason A Charlie Brown Christmas exists is Coca-Cola commissioned it as a special to advertise Coke products. Network sponsors did this frequently in the Golden Age of Television, as you might know if you’ve watched Mad Men.
In the original print of the special, a Coke logo graced the screen during the closing credits, while we were still watching the kids sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:
Another appearance during the opening credits is more startling because it took the form of a sign within the world itself. Linus, who we merely see fly off-screen to parts unknown in the version that airs today, originally slammed into this Coke message:
CBS removed these messages after the initial 1965 broadcast. Was it because they thought Coke would leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, since the program otherwise specifically preached against the commercialization of Christmas? Eh, not so much. The issue was the show later attained a second sponsor, Dolly Madison snack cakes, which objected to Coke’s prominent placement, so CBS agreed to remove all Coke logos and leave sponsor messages to commercial breaks.
Hilton Sponsored the Hilton Ad Campaign on ‘Mad Men’
Speaking of Mad Men, a show about advertising seems ripe for product placement. Every episode features the characters literally advertising some product, right? If brands were paying The Apprentice $2 million an episode for contestants to hawk their stuff, surely they’d pay to see the same thing done by a different womanizer named Don.
In practice, Mad Men generally featured brands without receiving any payment from the companies. This worked out well, since the characters' prepared presentations could be freely countered by other scenes about how much the products sucked. However, two exceptions broke this rule. One was Heineken. This paid sponsorship led to a rather awkward subplot where Don invites Heineken people to a home dinner, has his wife choose everything without telling her who the guests are, trusts she’ll buy Heineken without prompting, and then she does just that.
Hilton also sponsored the show. Hilton didn’t just ask that their hotel be included or that the characters write a Hilton ad. They suggested that founder Conrad Hilton become a character. The show complied, sticking him in the show for multiple episodes, which featured multiple Hilton campaigns. The show did make him kind of a dick, and his real-life family weren’t huge fans of that, but the Hilton company liked the arc just fine.
This support let Mad Men also tell the stories they wanted to tell, such as how unprecedented it was to be a female copywriter in the 1960s. Though, in real life, it wasn’t quite so unprecedented. N.W. Ayer had female copywriters and even a head of department as early as the 1940s. Those women were the ones who told Americans to buy diamonds.