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Top 10 Product Placements of the Last 10 Years

Did GM Snag the Best Deal of the Decade?

By Published on . 4

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It's still not always clear whether marketers pay for their roles in entertainment, but movies and TV have made good use of big brands in the 10 years since "Madison & Vine" was published. And most of the brands here definitely paid. In chronological order:

1. AT&T, "American Idol," 2002-2013. The longstanding partnership, which AT&T called off ahead of the show's 13th season this year, was a defining cultural moment, according to Mitch Kanner, founder of Two Degrees Ventures. AT&T's role in the show came when viewers were asked to vote on the singing contestants. "It taught America how to text," Mr. Kanner said.

2. Pontiac, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," 2004. The queen of talk shocked viewers when she gave all 276 audience members a Pontiac G-6 to mark the premiere of the show's 13th season. The story crackled across the media, with "Saturday Night Live" spoofing Oprah's emphatic, "Everybody gets a car! Everybody gets a car!" Pontiac donated the vehicles and paid the sales tax. Mark-Hans Richer, who is now Harley Davidson CMO (see No. 5), helped engineer the promotion when he was an executive at GM.

3. Staples, "The Office," 2006. It might ordinarily be tough to effectively work in a retailer that competes with the show's Dunder Mifflin, but in a 2006 episode Kevin goes nuts with a Staples MailMate shredder, eventually shredding lettuce into a salad. When a coworker asks where he got the salad, he says, "Staples." The big-box store went on to produce a Dunder Mifflin line of paper.

4. GM, "Transformers," 2007. As one Hollywood exec recently put it, Transformers was a two-hour commercial for GM (and Hasbro for that matter). Chevrolet, Pontiac, Hummer and GMC brands were essentially characters in the blockbuster, which grossed more than $700 million worldwide and spawned three sequels, including one due out this summer. GM has said it didn't pay for the product integration, but it did provide director Michael Bay with two custom Camaros. The re-launched Camaro, in fact, hadn't even been released when it appeared in the first "Transformers" movie as Bumblebee.

5. Harley Davidson, "Sons of Anarchy," 2008-present. FX's breakout series is about an outlaw motorcycle club that rumble around California in Harley Davidsons. The producers approached Harley about sponsoring the show's first episode, possibly commercial free. But Marks-Hans Richer, Harley's CMO, had a better idea: Instead of traditional advertising, why don't the characters all ride Harleys? "There are things that happen on the show that we wouldn't endorse as a corporation," he said. "But the spirit is very authentic -- it's about the bond between individuals." Harley doesn't pay for the placement, he added.

6. American Airlines, "Up in the Air," 2009. In this best-picture winning film, George Clooney plays a corporate layoff expert who travels the country firing people. His goal is to fly 10 million miles on American and get his name emblazoned on a plane. The airline didn't pay for placement, it told Ad Age in 2009, but it did provide locations and branding to help defray production costs.

7. Subway, "Chuck" and "Community," 2009-2014. Subway's product placements in "Chuck" were essentially ads within a show, while "Community" has written the brand in a bit better. But in both cases, grateful fans saw the brand more or less saving their favorite show from cancellation.

8. Apple iPad, "Modern Family," 2010. Apple and the producers swore that no money changed hands for an episode that saw geeky dad Phil obsess over getting an iPad as soon as it hit stores

9. Walmart and Procter & Gamble, "Secrets of the Mountain" and "The Jensen Project," 2010. These family-friendly made-for-TV movies, which aired on NBC, were designed to draw consumers to by P&G products at Walmart. They drew a pretty good audience for their time slot, and as Ad Age put it in 2010, the movies were the "holy grail" of branded entertainment.

10. Wheat Thins, "The Colbert Report," 2012. Stephen Colbert mercilessly made fun of Wheat Thins, a sponsor, by reading its high-minded brand brief to the audience and viewers. The brief said the crackers are not "a creator of isolated, unsharable experiences," Mr. Colbert said. They are "a snack for anyone actively seeking experiences" and "a connector of like-minded people." Kraft decided to consider the whole thing a net plus.

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