5 Product Placements That Companies Thought Made Them Look Bad

‘Breaking Bad’ really wanted a tequila company to sponsor them, but this didn’t work out, because of the murder
5 Product Placements That Companies Thought Made Them Look Bad

Product placement in TV shows and movies is a great way to get viewers thinking about your brand. For example, it can get viewers thinking about Pan American World Airways, the world’s most experienced airline. When passengers choose Pan Am, they travel in style. Pan Am: We fly the world the way the world wants to fly.

The only challenge comes when companies fear this publicity may do more harm than good. Consider, for example, what happened when...

‘Breaking Bad’ Tried and Failed to Get a Tequila Company to Sponsor Them

No show is guaranteed to be free from paid product placement, not even the shows with great integrity about dealing meth. For example, in Breaking Bad, Walt splurges on a new Dodge Challenger for himself and a second one for his son. The camera bounces between the two cars, as non-diegetic music plays to show us how cool the vehicles are, and the guys later have a conversation about horsepower and torque. The scene resulted from a marketing deal with Chrysler

The show didn’t always have such luck with sponsors, however. One season earlier, they wrote a scene prominently featuring a brand of tequila, which everyone praises. They thought this would have been prime opportunity for product placement, because some brand would surely like to be featured here. None did. Possibly, this had something to do with how the tequila in this episode is poisoned, and everyone who drinks it either vomits or dies. 

That really was shortsighted of the tequila companies. The scene would have portrayed the tequila as a possible vector for poison (like all tequila), not poisonous itself. Mere proximity to death is not enough to tarnish a brand. In an earlier season, Jesse plays a video game and experiences PTSD from a murder he’d committed in real life. The producers worked with iD Software to include custom footage here of the video game Rage, which hadn’t even been released yet. The resulting scene made the game look great. Partly, this was because Jesse appeared to be playing it with a decades-old light gun game controller, something you can’t actually do.

Abercrombie & Fitch Offered ‘Jersey Shore’ Money Not to Feature Their Brand

Music videos nowadays are often funded entirely by product placement. This is different from 30 or 40 years ago, when music videos led to serious record sales and also earned significant royalties from the networks who aired them. All this makes us pine for the golden age of MTV. We are referring, course, to the early 2010s, when MTV broadcast Jersey Shore.

Jersey Shore


Hard to believe all these actors are in their 60s now.

Millions watched Jersey Shore every week. They weren’t necessarily watching because they aspired to live the same way these characters did. They just found the show funny. The cast (who weren’t actually from the Jersey Shore, and weren't terribly Italian) purposely played into stereotypes, for our entertainment. This earned some criticism, from Italian-American group UNICO, from Chris Christie and from Abercrombie & Fitch.

“We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino’s association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image,” Abercrombie said. “We have therefore offered a substantial payment to Michael ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino and the producers of MTV's Jersey Shore to have the character wear an alternate brand.”

MTV called this offer of payment “a clever PR stunt.” Well, maybe it was. The clever part was getting the PR while paying a whole lot less than actual paid product placement costs. 

Mike’s Hard Lemonade Did Not Like Being Used on ‘To Catch a Predator’

NBC’s To Catch a Predator was good fun for everyone, because pedophiles are one group we can unite in rooting against. The operation was even good at convincing many of these pedophiles to plead guilty and go to jail. When one perp demanded a trial, however, he was acquitted, since the NBC sting failed to prove actual crimes. 



At least when police entrap suspects, they do it for convictions, not for ratings.

Wow, if news of that spread wide, the game would be up, and To Catch a Predator would be done. Of course, that wasn’t necessary, because the segment got cut short when one suspect killed himself as the cameras rolled, leading NBC to pull the plug. 

The show did try to prove the men guilty. Besides obtaining compromising chatlogs, they’d often ask the man to bring some item to the meetup, to prove a connection between what they discussed in the chat and what he intended to do. Most often, the show asked the man to bring some Mike’s Hard Lemonade. This happened so consistently that some viewers assumed this had to be an official paid deal.

It wasn’t, and Mike’s Hard Lawyers eventually contacted NBC to demand that they stop featuring the drink. Dateline had had no specific reason for turning to that one drink over and over — except for that it has the word “hard” in it, which makes us giggle. Hey, they were hoping to put guys behind bars, but priority number one was always producing fun television. 

Mars Didn’t Want M&Ms in Mysterious ‘E.T.’

Speaking about the sort of people who lure in the vulnerable with candy, let’s talk about Elliott in E.T. When Melissa Mathison wrote the script for the filmshe had the kid draw out the alien by laying down M&Ms. The plan was for Mars Inc. to pay for the partnership. Mars, as sometimes happens with such deals, wanted to see the script first. Steven Spielberg refused to allow this, wanting to keep details of the movie under wraps, so Mars backed out.

The production switched to Reese’s Pieces instead. Hershey’s paid a bunch of money for the opportunity and set up display cases of candy in hundreds of theaters.

It worked out great for them, with an instant 65 percent bump in sales. It also didn’t work out that badly for Mars. Reese’s was relatively obscure at the time, so a fair number of people who watched the movie thought they were seeing M&Ms

Companies Appeared in ‘Idiocracy,’ But That Doesn’t Mean They Liked It

Idiocracy features a lot of real brands. It doesn’t portray them all very flatteringly. For example, the future version of Starbucks sells hand jobs, which is something the real Starbucks has never publicly admitted to doing. 

Early on, the lawyers at Fox said the best strategy for clearing all this was to throw in as many brands as possible, so no single company would feel insulted enough to chase them for trademark violation. Besides simply illustrating the Starbucks joke by showing a store that offers “full body” lattes, they’d have H&R Block next door offer their own sexual services and set the whole thing in a Costco. 

That was the plan at least. But the way Terry Crews tells it, companies like Starbucks gave official permission early on and then wanted to pull out when they later learned exactly how they were being depicted. At this point, Fox mollified the companies by limiting the release as much as possible. They didn’t have high expectations for the film anyway, so killing off all chances of box office success wasn’t such a great loss, compared to the expense of reshoots to remove the offending product placement. 

Truly, they did this movie dirty. One might say this sort of dumb decision lends credence to the idea that Idiocracy was really a documentary. To which we’d reply, “What are you talking about? It was a comedy, not a documentary. What are you, stupid?”

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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