13 Examples of Product Placement in TV & Movies So Bad They're Good (and So Good They're Bad)
As we near the beginning of the 2020s, it's undeniable how much technology has changed our social and entertainment lives, even when compared to fairly recent years. There was a time where if you didn't want to watch the commercials during your favorite movie, you could just fast-forward the old VCR and skip right past them. If you didn't want to see them on TV, you had the perfect excuse for a snack or a bathroom break.
Obviously, the heavy hitters in the world of advertising were still getting a big audience, but they wanted something more. For those who could afford it (and those lucky enough to have their names written into a script organically), placing their products in a movie or television show ensured that their audience would stay and sit through their sales pitch whether they liked it or not. It's still a strategy that works, as if the production is a hit, it provides a chance for a product or company to earn a big place in pop culture history. Today, we're going to take a look back at 13 instances of product placement on the big and small screen. As you'll see, some were executed skillfully, while others were just kind of shameless.
1. Waffle House, Whataburger, and Luby's in "King of the Hill"
Anyone famililar with the animated sitcom "King of the Hill", which ran from 1997-2010 on Fox, knows that it's a study in Texas culture. Any Texan or frequent visitor to the Lone Star State will easily spot out the many references to various Texas fast food chains that take place throughout the series. Whataburger (changed alternately to "Whattabuger" and "Want-a-Burger"), Luly's (changed to "Luby's"), and Waffle House (dubbed "Waffle Cafe" or "Waffle Hut") all appear in several episodes.
In fact, the character Luanne Platter is even named for a dinner combination served at Luby's, a homestyle buffet chain. Based on the fact that all of the restaurants have their names changes, it's unlikely that they ever paid a dime to get all the exposure. Here's a quick bumper created by Adult Swim, the network which now airs "King of the Hill", parodying Waffle House:
2. Domino's Pizza in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
In 1990, there were few bigger crazes among American youth than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Appearing from everywhere from television cartoons to cereals to Halloween costumes and everything in between, it was a time when it was easy to be green. When the first feature length film staring the reptilian quartet came out in 1990, it was one of the most highly anticipated box office events of the year. This is a fact that wasn't lost on Domino's, or Domino's Pizza, as they were still known at the time.
A scene that starts out as a serious and reflective conversation between Donatello and Michelangelo quickly shifts focus to a frustrated Domino's delivery man trying to find the turtles' address. As he walks the streets dressed head to toe in Domino's garb, he's ultimately shocked to discover the address he's supposed to deliver to is located in the sewer. He then slips the very clearly Domino's branded pizza box into the storm drain, only to receive just a partial payment. This results in one of the film's more famous quotes, which is, "Wise man say, forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for late pizza!" Take a look at the blatant ad placement in the video below:
Super Mario Bros 3 - The Wizard
In addition to featuring some of the most shameless product placement of all time, The Wizard is also viewed as one of the most cringeworthy movies of the late 80s. Regardless, it does have a dedicated fan base who will defend it to the death. Anyway, the movie stars Fred Savage, who at the time, was in his early years of portraying Kevin Arnold on TV's "The Wonder Years". In the film, he portrays Corey, the older brother of master gamer Jimmy. Jimmy is suffering from mental trauma resulting from the death of his twin sister two years earlier and has been committed to a psychiatric facility. For (initially) unexplained reasons, the withdrawn youngster has an obsession with going to California. At the very end, it's revealed he wanted to leave his sister's ashes at a tourist attraction of which she was especially fond.
As the movie goes on, Corey helps Jimmy to escape and engages in a trouble-filled hitchhiking adventure to California. Along the way, they meet a girl who becomes somewhat of a love interest for Corey. More importantly, she informs the brothers about "Video Armageddon", a video game tournament taking place in Hollywood. The three travel there and as the final challenge, Jimmy faces off against (and defeats) two opponents at the NES game Super Mario Bros 3.
This movie hit theaters before the game hit store shelves, so it was pretty much one big advertisement thinly veiled as a full movie. Things worked out pretty well though, as the game ended up being one of the best-selling video games of all time. Below this paragraph, you'll find a video containing the final showdown in the movie.
3. Doritos, Pizza Hut, Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and Reebok in Wayne's World
Wayne's World was one of the most popular and well-aged movies of 1992, if not the entire decade. Thought it has a solidly Generation X-level sarcasm and snarkiness to it, it's a film that's still amusing to watch for people of all ages, even 27 years after its release. It's an impressive feat for a movie that was fleshed out of a minutes-long recurring "Saturday Night Live" Sketch.
In the film, Wayne and his pal Garth host a public access television show which manages to get the attention of some powerful people. A rather unpleasant man named Benjamin Oliver buys the rights to the show for $10,000. This ultimately leads to a complex chain of events that sees Wayne and Garth through a series of highs and lows. One of the lows comes in the form of having to work for the studio and "sell out" to the sponsors.
The aforementioned gripe results in one of the most well-known scenes of the film and quite possibly the most obvious attempt at product placement ever made in a movie. What makes it great is that they don't even attempt to hide it; the actors complain about how wrong it is to just do things for money and serve the sponsors, all the while spouting slogans and flashing products. Just take a look for yourself and you'll see what we mean.
5. Mountain Dew and XBox360 in Transformers (2007)
Though some people may remember this movie for being the first Transformers film in the modern series, or simply for including Megan Fox, those in the advertising business likely remember it for something else. Both the XBox360 and Mountain Dew managed to not only be plugged in the film, but also get in on the action. Each of the two items was given its own Transformer. 12 years later, the action figures representing them still remain popular among collectors and fans of the franchise. Naming the Mountain Dew machine character "Dispensor" was just so extremely uninspired that it ended up being brilliant.
Here's a brief and silent clip of Dispensor that needs no audio as it pretty clearly speaks for itself.
Ripple - "Sanford & Son"
Fred Sanford, the crabby and lecherous junkyard owner portrayed by Redd Foxx on "Sanford & Son" from 1972-1977, had a habit of dropping product names and slogans. References to Fatburger, the Yellow Pages, Disneyland, and Conkoleen all popped up now and then, but the most consistent plug was for Ripple.
Ripple was a low-cost carbonated wine mixed with fruit brandy that was put out by Gallo during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a popular drink due to its affordability and relatively high alcohol content. It was also Fred Sanford's favorite drink in the world. He'd bring it up in numerous episodes, usually either to request it in a place where it obviously would not be served, or to mix it with some other beverage and create a clever portmanteau (i.e. a mixture of champagne and Ripple being dubbed "Champipple").
Though good-hearted, Fred was a big of a bigot and often found himself at odds with his neighbor Julio, who was of Puerto Rican descent. The clip below shows a rare instance of them palling around together, complete with a Ripple reference.
Red Robin in "South Park"
For whatever reason, the long-running Comedy Central hit series "South Park" loves to throw Red Robin into episodes on a regular basis. In one episode, Red Robin coupons are used as a bargaining chip when Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny are trying to get some older kids to defend them from a bully. In another, a protest outside of a government building next to a Red Robin is misunderstood, leading to a confused media creating an event called "Occupy Red Robin". This is the scene we've included in the article.
Red Robin's most prominent appearance in "South Park" came in a multi-part episode from 2013 in which the kids in town form an all-out war over whether they should align their loyalty with the PS4 or the XBox One. It culminates in a very graphic scene in which Bill Gates has a fight to the death with the president of Sony.
Dunkin' Donuts in Multiple Adam Sandler Movies
It's not exactly a secret that Adam Sandler is comfortable with promoting large corporations in his films. One recurring, and probably the most extreme example, revolves around Dunkin' Donuts, which plays a prominent role in two of his movies. Both Eight Crazy Nights and Jack and Jill show that Adam Sandler runs on Dunkin'.
Eight Crazy Nightsis an animated Hanukkah-themed film that was made in 2002. In it, main character Davey Stone has a love interest who runs a Dunkin' Donuts in a mall which is frequented by Whitey, his elderly and reluctant roommate. In Jack and Jill, the chain plays a much larger role. In this movie, Sandler plays a character (Jack) with a twin sister (Jill) for whom Al Pacino develops a rather obsessive crush. Sandler's character is an advertising executive who desperately tries to get Pacino to star in a Dunkin' Donuts spot. This is something he refuses to do unless Jack agrees to set him up with Jill. Lots of comedic blunders take place along the way, with the commercial finally being shot at the end of the film.
White Castle in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
White Castle is most famous for its small, onion packed burgers and for being the oldest true fast food chain in America. However, it earned a permanent place in pop culture thanks to the 2004 movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. This movie is the epitome of early 2000s stoner chic. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around two friends getting high, seeing a commercial for White Castle on tv, and deciding they want to eat there. They then head to the nearest location, only to find out it has gone out business. Undeterred, they set out on a roadtrip to the second closest location.
Lots of marijuana related misadventures as well as a raccoon bite hospitalization, family turmoil, and a quasi-carjacking take place as the duo plods on. At long last, they get to a White Castle, though not after riding a cheetah and then hang gliding off of a cliff to get there. When they arrive, they realize they don't have enough money to buy their food, but then the character who stole their car earlier shows up and pays for their meal in order to apologize. Be warned, the clip below contains some adult language.
Mr. Pibb in Slither
Mr. Pibb is a soda that was originally known as Peppo and now goes by the name of Pibb Xtra. However, Mr. Pibb was the name that spanned the longest amount of time and the one that most people still use when referring to it. It's similar to Dr. Pepper, only with a slightly lower level of carbonation and a bit more of a spicy taste. Its constant efforts to compete with the Doctor, combined with its legion of devoted fans, has led to this particular soda being lampooned in a lot of movies and television shows.
The clip below (another with a little bit of cussing) is from the 2006 movie Slither. This film tells the tale of a small town in South Carolina whose population is affected by an alien parasite that ends up killing nearly the whole population. In one of the films lighter moments, a character named Jack has a bit of a meltdown upon finding out that the car he's riding in doesn't have an Mr. Pibb on board.
Twinkies in Zombieland
As part of the zombiemania that gripped the nation for nearly a decade, a comedy/science fiction film by the name of Zombieland made its debut on the big screen in 2009. This movie played on the rather trite "Zombie Apocalypse" theme. The plot involved a strain of Mad Cow Disease morphing into Mad Person Disease and finally into Mad Zombie Disease. Throughout the film, the few surviving characters band together and try to find a region of the southwestern USA that is reported to be free of zombies. They also search for (and talk about) Twinkies. A lot. The following clip is one example of the film's unrepentant hawking of America's favorite snack cake. It's also the last one to which we'll need to attach the adult language warning.
AOL Email Service - You've Got Mail
Any person who is old enough to remember the 1990s indubitably remembers constantly hearing the catchphrase, "You've got mail!" This was the alert used by America Online (AOL) to inform users that they'd received a new message in their inbox. While AOL is no longer a major player in the email game, they pretty much WERE the email game in the mid to late 90s.
AOL was such a fixture of life and popular culture during this era that it even had a starring role of sorts in a film which bore its tagline for a title. You've Got Mail was a romantic comedy of sorts starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This 1998 picture focused on the offline and in-person interactions and misperceived betrayals between its leading man and lady. Eventually, after crossing paths in real life several times, the pair learn that they are the same couple who had been confiding in each other via the Internet throughout the events of the movie. More or less it, all ends happily ever after. Below, we've included the official trailer for the movie, which is now 21 years old.
1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in "Knight Rider"
When one thinks of classic 1980s television shows, it's quite uncommon that "Knight Rider" doesn't enter the conversation. This was an action/adventure/drama series that ran from 1982 through 1986 and starred David Hasselhoff alongside a talking and self-aware car by the name of KITT. KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) was the vehicle driven and constantly used both to get into and out of trouble by Michael Knight. Knight was an injured police officer starting anew as the face of a special police force created to fight crime mostly in and around Los Angeles.
KITT was a 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that could speak, often act independently, and survive just about any situation or level of physical punishment. This is a truly unique example of product placement in entertainment, as instead of just one episode of even a full movie, this was a four year long series which constantly promoted an item. It was quite a lucrative arrangement, as sales for the '82 Firebird Trans Am were through the roof.
For anyone who may not remember it, we're including the theme from Knight Rider in the video just below this paragraph.
Those the 13 members of our perp walk for the tv shows and movies we've found guilty of multiple acts of product placement. Are there any worse offenders that we missed? Were there any examples of shows/movies that did it better? Let us know - leave a comment!