The Stealthy World of Brands

Not unlike other forms of social manipulation, product placement traces back to the golden era of Hollywood. In the late 1930s, the De Beers diamond cartel, desperate to sell diamonds in the Depression, gave its ad agency, N.W. Ayer, a truly daunting assignment: implant in the minds of American men the idea that buying a quarter-carat diamond would let them have their way with women.

The agency came up with a strategy to insert scenes in movies showing women acquiescing when their beaux bought them bling. De Beers facilitated this plan by providing free diamond rings to producers, executives, and directors who, in turn, gave them the desired scenes.

N.W. Ayer then set up a weekly service called “Hollywood Personalities,” which provided 125 leading newspapers with gossip items about diamonds worn on and off screen by the stars.

Product placement remained under the radar until producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli made a deal to use American Motors vehicles in all the chase scenes in James Bond movies, starting with The Man With the Golden Gun. The cost to American Motors was $5 million, an amount that escalated with each Bond movie. (In the latest Bond films, BMW reportedly spent $25 million per flick to showcase its cars.) 

Other car companies followed suit, including Chrysler Jeeps in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider 2, Audis in I, Robot and The Transporter 2, and GM cars in The Matrix Reloaded. In rare instances, such as Quaker Oats’ sponsorship of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original with Gene Wilder), an entire movie is financed by a company with a product to sell—in this case, a candy bar—but most often product placement only produces barter products and advertising deals that are of minor significance in the multimillion dollar budgets of feature films.

On the small screen, product placement has been a boon for scripted TV shows, of course, given the numerous ways to skip commercials. And those placed on reality TV shows fit nicely in the consumer zeitgeist. For example, in a six-month span, Fox’s American Idol had 4,636 “product shots” of Coca-Cola, making it the most placed product on broadcast TV.

The Federal Communications Commission, concerned that product placements violate its requirements that programmers should disclose sponsors, now requires disclaimers in the shows’ credits.

Which brings us to Ashton Kutcher and CBS. In Two and a Half Men’s second episode, Kutcher’s character had a laptop visibly plastered with stickers from websites with which he’s affiliated. Out of them, only one, Foursquare, was noted in the show’s credits. CBS claims not to have known about the laptop until too late, and has since banned it.

Clearly, what used to be the content envelope in entertainment is now in the hands of advertisers.

Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images