Product placement goes back to the earliest days of film. The first movie ever to win a Best Picture Oscar was a silent 1927 film called Wings, which featured Clara Bow, Gary Cooper and, in one scene, a prominently placed bar of Hershey’s chocolate.
The practice lives on today, as companies place their products in movies in the hope that filmgoers will buy what they see onscreen. But which cases of product placement in the movies have really worked?
Click ahead to see 10 of the most notable product placement success stories.
By Daniel Bukszpan, Special for CNBC.com
Posted 03 June 2011
The 1983 comedy Risky Business is both the movie that launched Tom Cruise’s career and the movie that saved Ray-Ban’s Wayfarer sunglasses from extinction. Cruise plays Joel, a suburban high school student whose parents go out of town for the weekend, leaving him free to dance around the house in his underwear. His character wears Ray-Ban’s Wayfarer sunglasses, which became so popular as a result that 360,000 pairs were sold that year.
The placement did more than just shift units; it literally pulled the product back from the brink. Just two years earlier, Ray-Ban had sold an anemic 18,000 pairs of Wayfarers, and they were close to discontinuing them entirely. However, in 1982, the company hired Unique, a Burbank product placement firm, and they got the sunglasses into 60 different films and TV shows in the next five years, Risky Business included. As a result, they made their way onto the faces of many of the 1980s’ major celebrities, and by 1986, 1.5 million pairs had sold.
The film also gave an unsolicited shout-out to Porsche. At one point in the film, Joel is involved in a car chase, and he escapes in his father’s Porsche 928. After getting away, he says, “Porsche: There is no substitute,” the company’s tag line at the time. While there are no figures to indicate whether this helped the German automaker move a single car off of the lot, it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
If you do a Google search for “product placement” and “movies,” the story of E.T. and Reese’s Pieces is guaranteed to come up. In the 1982 Steven Spielberg blockbuster, a boy named Elliot leaves a trail of the candies for the lovable alien, who follows them to the boy’s house. The rest is history.
Spielberg originally wanted to use the much more popular M&M’s in the movie, but when the filmmakers approached the Mars company, they were turned down. Hershey, on the other hand, said yes, and subsequently saw their product appear in one of the highest-grossing films of all time. They benefited immensely from the placement, and according to a 1983 People magazine article, their profits rose 65% as a result.
The 2003 film The Italian Job is a remake of the 1969 heist movie of the same name. The original stars Michael Caine, Benny Hill and several Mini Coopers, and when the film was remade with Mark Wahlberg, the filmmakers used the current model of the iconic car. BMW happily obliged them and provided the production with more than 30 cars.
The film was only moderately successful, but the product placement worked like a charm. BusinessWeek reported that since the film’s 2003 release, the car experienced a 22% increase in sales over the previous year. However, the placement may have worked too well. Film critic Stephanie Zacharek’s review of the film stated that, “the real star of ‘The Italian Job’ is not a person but a car.”
Few military films have been as successful as 1986’s Top Gun. It stars Tom Cruise as Maverick, a US Navy pilot, and it features dazzling aerial footage that kept audiences coming back for more, eventually making it the highest-grossing film of the year. Just as he had done three years earlier in Risky Business, Cruise popularized another line of Ray-Ban sunglasses, the Aviator. The glasses were originally seen in newspaper photos of General Douglas MacArthur, who wore them when US forces landed in the Philippines during World War II.
Top Gun also helped boost recruitment in the US Navy, who had set up booths in movie theater lobbies to enlist enthusiastic audience members. All told, the film boosted sales of Aviator sunglasses by 40%, and according to the Navy, it caused a major increase in the number of keyed up young men charging into their recruiting offices to become pilots.
1995’s GoldenEye was the seventeenth installment in the James Bond film series, and it featured several firsts. It was the first Bond film to star Pierce Brosnan as 007, the first not based on an Ian Fleming novel and the first released after the end of the Cold War. It was also the first Bond film in which the spy’s automobile of choice was not an Aston Martin. Instead, the British agent got around in a Z3 by BMW.
The Z3 wasn’t actually released until months after the film had left theaters, and in the film it didn’t even feature any neat gadgets. However, its appearance was the first in a three-picture deal that BMW had made with the filmmakers, and it paid off when they received 9,000 orders for the car the month after the movie opened.
The 2007 Transformers movie is the first in a planned trilogy based on the toy line. It depicts a war between two alien races of robots, the Autobots and the Decepticons, both of whom are able to change into cars. General Motors contributed a Chevrolet Camaro to the production, but this was no ordinary Camaro. It was tricked out with Autobot shields on the side panels and center caps of the wheels, and it proudly sported the Transformers logo.
The car didn’t actually exist in real life, but its appearance in the film created demand for it. This demand only became more intense when the film was released on DVD. The car appeared again in the 2009 sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and during that year it was released and sold to actual, flesh-and-blood car buyers. By the end of the year, over 60,000 units had sold.
2003’s Lost In Translation is critically acclaimed comedy-drama starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray as Americans who meet in Tokyo. Murray plays an aging screen legend, in town to film a commercial for Suntory Whisky. The drink gets considerable screen time, particularly when Murray’s character is shooting his ad and tries to negotiate the language barrier in the process.
Suntory has had such Western celebrities as Sean Connery and Keanu Reeves appear in their advertisements. However, Masaki Morimoto, general manager for Suntory’s premium-spirits marketing department, said that the placement gave the product a much higher profile than it ever got from television or print ads. “It was a great boost for us,” he said. “Our company got famous internationally.”
In 1993, Tom Cruise starred in The Firm, a thriller based on the novel by John Grisham. Cruise plays a Harvard Law School graduate seduced into joining a prestigious Memphis firm. He gains the mentorship of an older lawyer at the firm, played by Gene Hackman, and at one point both characters drink Red Stripe beer. The product is mentioned by name in none-too-subtle fashion, and the beer itself is plainly visible to all viewers, in case they missed it.
The product placement might not have been too subtle, but it worked wonders. According to Business Week, sales of the Jamaican beer increased by more than 50% in the United States, and just a few weeks after that, the company’s owners sold a majority stake in their brewery to Guinness Brewing Worldwide for $62 million.
The 2004 comedy Sideways follows two men on a week-long trip through California wine country. The film became an unexpected hit and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It features scenes of wine tasting sessions that provide several brands with an opportunity to flaunt their labels.
Sales of pinot noir increased in the US in the months after the film’s release, but the Blackstone brand in particular received a larger than average boost, and its sales increased by 150%. However, the film’s main character, portrayed by Paul Giamatti, is extremely vocal in his distaste for merlot, and following the film’s release, US sales of merlot actually dropped by 2%.
In the 1971 classic Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood plays Harry Callahan, a renegade cop who shows no hesitation when it comes to wasting creeps. Early in the film, Callahan holds one such individual at gunpoint and recites one of the most oft-repeated monologues in cinema history.
“I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
According to the 2005 book Small Arms: From the Civil War to the Present Day, the high profile that the film gave the firearm contributed mightily to its popularity. While this did not technically qualify as product placement, it’s hard to imagine that the weapon would have reached the iconic status that it enjoys today without its appearance in the film.