Q: Last night, I was watching “The Big Bang Theory” in which two of the main characters had jobs at The Cheesecake Factory. I wondered whether this was a form of product placement? Surely a hit show like BBT doesn’t need extra money for shamelessly pitching a popular restaurant. Then I remembered how a few years earlier, a now-defunct show called “Chuck” would often show the principal characters eating a Subway Meatball Sub! When did product placement originate? Is it costly? Has it ever backfired?
A.R., of Edwardsville
A: Ever since the Golden Age of Television, viewers have been suffering through the phenomenon known as the Incredible Shrinking Program.
When I was glued to “Lost in Space” or “The Avengers” in the ’60s, I was treated to about 51 minutes of program and nine minutes of commercials, hardly enough time to run out and grab my cheese doodles. Now with that “hourlong” program often sliced to 42 or 43 minutes, I could fix a three-course meal during the ads.
But wait, there’s more! As if the growing number of ads wasn’t bad enough, advertisers often pile on by paying sometimes millions of bucks to place their products front and center in the programs and movies themselves. They figure it’s even more convincing to have a wildly popular star drinking Coke or driving a Toyota than some unknown schmo hired for a commercial. Besides, they know you probably won’t be taking a bathroom break during the show.
Your memory of “Chuck” is a perfect example. According to AdAge, Subway in 2008 increased its spending on NBC more than 50 percent, from $22 million to $34.4 million. For their largesse, they watched, for example contestants on “The Biggest Loser” walk to a Subway store, where they learned about the chain’s healthy selections. On “Chuck,” not only were the sandwiches shown, but the company slogan “$5 foot-longs” was even worked into the dialogue.
And companies will spend the big bucks just for a few seconds of screen time. Take the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie thriller “Minority Report,” for example. According to Daily Variety, advertisers wanting a flash of notoriety in the flick contributed a cool $25 million overall to the film’s $102 million budget.
Many of the companies, including Burger King, Century 21, and Aquafina, had video billboards with their logos. Those who saw it also likely will remember a scene in a futuristic Gap store or Cruise’s character walking by another sign that calls out, “John Anderton, you look like you could use a Guinness!”
But you know what? “Minority Report” was just sort of an advertising “Back to the Future” on steroids. Historians will tell you that product placement has been around more than a century. For example, way back in the 1870s transport and shipping companies asked — and perhaps paid — Jules Verne to mention them in his “Around the World in Eighty Days.” The famous painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by Èdouard Manet, clearly shows two bottles of Bass beer, although whether he was paid to include them is unknown.
Moviemakers took full advantage of this revenue stream almost from the start. In 2007, Jean-Marc Lehu, a French marketing professor, suggested a film by the Lumiere brothers in 1896 were made at the request of Lever Brothers in France and featured the company’s Sunlight soap.
It’s perhaps the first product placement in movie history — and it wasn’t long before the practice got on people’s goats. In his Harrison’s Reports, a movie trade journal dating to the early 20th century, publisher P.S. Harrison often railed against the practice as harmful to movie theaters. As early as 1911, he condemned the Red Crown Gasoline logo showing up in “The Garage,” a 25-minute Buster Keaton/Fatty Arbuckle comedy. He had similar harsh words when a Smith-Corona typewriter appeared in the 1925 movie “The Lost World.”
But as we know today, his criticism fell on deaf ears. Product placement has continued unabated, often paying colossal dividends for the sponsors. For example, you have to wonder whether Mars Inc. is still kicking itself for not allowing its M&M’s to appear in “E.T.” Instead, Hershey’s accepted the invitation and saw Reese’s Pieces sales soar by 65 percent within three months of the movie’s release. (Hershey’s, by the way, merely agreed to do $1 million in E.T.-related advertising for the plug.)
More examples: In 1981, Ray-Ban sold 18,000 pairs of its Wayfarers; in the year after Tom Cruise wore them in “Risky Business,” 360,000 pairs flew off the shelves. (He would do the same thing for Ray-Ban’s Aviators after “Top Gun.”) Sales of Etch-A-Sketch exploded by 4500 percent after “Toy Story.” And who can forget Wilson the volleyball that co-starred with Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” — and Wilson reportedly did not even pay for the placement, which perhaps would have cost $10 million or more.
You couldn’t ask for better exposure than that, which is why even when a product is ostensibly shown in a bad light, few companies complain. FedEx is busier than ever despite its crash in “Cast Away.” Would you trust your kid to American Airlines after what happens to Kevin McCallister in “Home Alone”? And I still bought a Samsung cell phone recently even though their misfiring technology led to dinosaurs enjoying a human brunch in the “Jurassic Park” series.
That’s probably why The Cheesecake Factory isn’t raising a stink over their inclusion in “The Big Bang Theory.” They did not give permission (which is why the TV restaurant and uniforms look nothing like the real McCoy) nor did they pay any fee, but you can bet they’re whistling a happy tune all the way to the bank.
“The Cheesecake Factory does not have any sort of arrangements with the show,” a spokeswoman for the chain has said. “The Cheesecake Factory is really pleased to be featured in such a funny and wildly popular show.”
The inclusion of what product in “Superman II” eventually led to congressional hearings?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: The world’s first emergency telephone system is thought to have originated on July 1, 1937, in London. When 999 was dialed, a buzzer sounded and a red light flashed in the exchange to attract an operator's attention.