Promo products are a great way for characters in TV and film to show a certain quirkiness and a hidden backstory, simply by being seen wearing a t-shirt or sporting a product. For the brand that happens to find itself being featured, the coverage can prove to be an unexpected shot in the arm. But what governs whose logo and whose product gets seen?
The truth is that it’s random and depends to a large part on the scriptwriter and the director’s sense of humor. What helps is called ‘product displacement.’ Brands will often pay thousands of dollars for their logo to appear on a TV show or in a movie, but if the network doesn’t want to give them free advertising, they’ll cover the logo up, which is why you see a lot of laptops where the Apple logo is covered with a badge or sticker.
If the owner of the logo suspects their brand is being used in a way that might make a buyer think twice, or even dent profits, it can even be expensive. Etsy shop owners were threatened with legal action by Fox for selling a hat worn by a character in the show Firefly and Emerson Electronics threatened NBC when a character in Heroes was shown shoving her hand in their InSinkErator garbage disposal unit.
This makes it seem altogether safer to use fake brands. This is why It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia had its characters drink ‘Wolf Cola,’ with Dennis Reynolds as Executive Vice President of Distribution and why the medics in Scrubs drank in ‘Coffee Bucks,’ a place that was a lawyer’s breadth from being Starbucks. But for these very real brands below, representing an esoteric range of products, it turned out their luck was in.
Air Service International
Seen in the film Napoleon Dynamite and worn by the eponymous hero, the helicopter t-shirt is a key part of establishing his identity as a quirky anti-hero. Set at a wholly unspecified time that apparently shifts between the eighties and early nineties, this makes the tee oddly appropriate, as the logo is an old one from Air Service International which makes repairs to Bell helicopters.
Froggy 101 Radio
Hawkeyed viewers of The Office will have noticed an unusually upbeat bumper sticker behind Dwight Schrute’s desk. The sticker read ‘Froggy 101’ and far from being a retailer of amphibians, it’s a real, live radio station that serves Scranton in Pennsylvania where it is also known as WGGY and uses a variety of frog-related puns, encouraging listeners to ‘give us a ribbit on the hoplines.’ While no listener stats exist, it’s likely that Froggy will have benefited from the exposure.
While not a brand that struggles with exposure given they’re owned by Kellogg, the Eggo wasn’t previously a brand that was particularly prominent in the national consciousness. This changed in 2016 when the writers of the Netflix series Stranger Things made them the favorite food of the character Eleven. After she went missing, another character found her by leaving a box of the frozen waffles in the woods. The storyline was said to be a homage to ET’s obsession with Reese’s Pieces.
More importantly for the brand, sales were said to have exhibited a 14% year-on-year increase. Having the product made such an integral part of the storyline also had its own effect on the brand. Stranger Things was built into a later brand refresh with Stranger Things branding appearing on product packaging and the brand being smart enough to offer various deals related to the show.
Queer Eye ice cream
The makers of the popular Bravo series, now rebooted on Netflix, made an unusual choice by choosing an experimental San Francisco company as the manufacturer of a Queer Eye ice cream. Press releases stressed that Queer Eye was about creating ‘a one of a kind ice cream flavor that represents the spirit of our show,’ having decided that spirit would be called ‘Cookies and Graham.’ The deal was brokered by marketing behemoth IMG and counts as a vast win for small business.
The Oregonian woollen mill is one of the more expensive, but solidly reassuring brands. For fans of the cult film, The Big Lebowski, and who have some money to spend, they’re better known as the manufacturers of the Dude’s trademark cardigan, known under the name ‘the Westerly.’ With a new version launched in 2013 and again in 2014, Pendleton have finally released the original. Yours for $239, it shows the power of slow burn product placement.
If there’s one thing that has the power to change amusing references to obscure radio stations, helicopter services, and frozen waffles into something more interesting, it’s the growing power of services such as Hulu and Netflix. Both are open to different relationships with companies that lie outside the traditional ‘big brand, big bucks’ deal, and Hulu has said it welcomes ads of any length, from a disparate range of names.
This means that, for any brand with wit, imagination, and modest financial resources, it’s not inconceivable they could have an advertisement on Hulu or a character on Netflix who’s wearing their t-shirt, provided it fits in with the storyline. When Hotels.com wanted to be featured by Hulu, the service couldn’t find an easy way to accommodate them, but created a bespoke ad themed around the works of Stephen King.
Not everyone is Hotels.com, but it’s clear that streaming services are challenging old ways of doing things. And while profits may not come pouring in immediately with such placements, to paraphrase the Dude, for brands that get it right, the profits will abide.