How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

These days, product placement is an accepted part of science fiction. We're used to seeing big brands splashed all over every TV show and movie about aliens or the future. But it wasn't always this way. Here's the quick-and-very-dirty history of how on-screen advertising became a science fiction mainstay.

Science fiction helped to invent product placement, with Steven Spielberg's shoehorning of Reese's Pieces into E.T., making them the official candy of penis-fingered growly alien visitors. But that wasn't actually the first instance of product placement in the genre. What was?

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek


It's hard to say, but one of the earliest instances was the overexposure of Sugar Puffs cereal in 1966's Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. The movie version of the classic Doctor Who story starred Peter Cushing as the eccentric time-traveler, who visits a ruined future London where the killing-machine Daleks have taken over. There's no food or clean water, and the survivors of the Dalek attacks live in total squalor. But hey... did we mention Sugar Puffs cereal is sugary and delicious? Sugar Puffs helped to finance the movie in exchange for having their posters visible throughout.

Also, 2001: A Space Odyssey features prominent references to, and fake ads for, Pan-Am, IBM and Howard Johnson. But those were simply companies that director Stanley Kubrick thought would still be around in a few decades. As far as I can find out, no money actually changed hands — in fact, Kubrick contacted 50 companies and asked them to submit logos and designs for what their products might look like in 40 years.

Also this nifty bit of Marlboro promo in a Superman II fight scene predates E.T. by a couple of years. Kneel before our cool, refreshing smokes:

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

But yes, E.T.'s focus on Reese's Pieces may well have been the first high-profile example of product placement in a science fiction movie. The media reported widely that M&Ms had turned down the chance to be in the mega-hit, and Reese's Pieces reaped some extra publicity from all the coverage. The candy's sales spiked 65 percent after the film came out, and kids wrote to Steven Spielberg with fan art that featured Reese's Pieces prominently:

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

But there's also a lot of exposure for Coca-Cola, Coors beer, Speak'n'Spell and Pez candy, among other brands, in the movie. Here are some more screen shots:

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

Around the same time, TV's Knight Rider showed us the way forward in science fictional product placement: people will always want to buy the supercars they see featured on screen. (See below for Transformers and the Knight Rider reboot.) General Motors gave the show's makers models of the new Trans Am, which they decked out as KITT, and people rushed to buy their own KITTs.

But E.T. and Knight Rider were like babies, or maybe monks, compared to the Back To The Future trilogy. Seriously, google "Back To The Future worst product placement" and set aside an hour or two to look at all the lists of the "worst movie product placement of all time" that include the BTTF trilogy. References to Pepsi are jammed into the first two films (like when Marty tries to order a Pepsi Free in 1955), his mom thinks he's named Calvin Klein, and the films ram Nike, Pizza Hut, AT&T, Hasbro and Mattel down your throat. (The DeLorean gets a free pass, because it's actually funny.)

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home took advantage of its present-day setting to pimp Michelob beer - the official beer of the Federation - and of course, Scotty gets to know an Apple Macintosh better. The Trek franchise liked that product-placement money so much, Kirk and his crew go camping in Levis jeans in Star Trek V.

Meanwhile, Apple got more and more into the product-placement action, getting some first-class pimping in Mission Impossible and Independence Day — where a Mac notebook is the key to stopping the alien invaders. And then in Blade Trinity, one character goes to the iTunes music store to assemble a playlist for her ipod, which she listens to while fighting vampires. There's also a nice Apple plug in I Am Legend.

In fact, in 2011, Brandchannel determined that Apple got its products featured on screen in 30 percent of the year's top movies. The Apple fetishism at the movies probably peaked with Wall-E, where Wall-E builds a home theater out of an old iPod, and makes the Mac startup sound when he reboots.

Another movie which wins a spot in the product-placement hall of shame is Demolition Man. Sylvester Stallone gets woken up in the future, and finds that Taco Bell/Pizza Hut has won the "franchise wars" and now all restaurants are Taco Bell. (In some versions, this is changed to Pizza Hut):

One of the first television series to be accused of shoving consumer items in your face was Babylon 5, which stuck a gigantic Zima sign over the alien boxing ring in the episode "TKO." Series creator J. Michael Straczynski insisted the show got "not a dime" for the Zima plug, and it was just for the lolz.

Men In Black got a lot of flak for its relentless pushing of the Ray-Ban Predator 2 sunglasses, which tripled in sales to almost $5 million after the film came out. And Men In Black II is another proud moment for product pimping. An alien intruder arrives on Earth and needs to assume a form to confuse us humans. So of course her/its eye lights on a Victoria's Secret ad:

And then there's the famous taxi chase in The Fifth Element, which leads up to the cops getting showered with McDonald's cartons. Good thing they still have Mickey D's in this dystopian future:

One trend in the 2000s has been movies featuring fake advertisements for real products as part of the plot, sort of a throwback to 2001. Who helped pioneer this? None other than Steven "Reese's Pieces" Spielberg, who has Tom Cruise walk through a mall full of personalized ads in Minority Report.

Michael Bay also crams The Island full of fake ads, including a Chanel ad that stars the woman Scarlet Johnasson was cloned from. I, Robot pushed Converse's Chuck Taylor shoes so much, there's a whole Chuck Taylor web page devoted to the film. (The movie gets four Chucks out of five.) At one point, Will Smith waves his "antique" Chuck Taylors around and talks about how fast he can run away from the killer robots, thanks to his Chucks. If you saw this movie and liked the shoes, could you buy your own pair? Gosh, I think so!

How Product Placement Took Over Science Fiction, From E.T. To Star Trek

We could be here all day discussing the wealth of car product placement in recent movies. The Lost World: Jurassic Park features a new kind of Mercedes Benz SUV, and Steven Spielberg lovingly, frames a shot so you can see the Mercedes logo really clearly.

The Matrix Reloaded is such a great Cadillac ad, with its freeway chase, that the DVD even has a featurette about the product placement. Terminator 3 is brought to you by Lexus and Toyota. I Am Legend is one big ad for the Ford Mustang. Transformers is basically built around promoting GM's latest car models, and the second film is already getting buzz around the new Chevy Volt and Corvette models.

The Dark Knight is plastered with Ford. The 2008 reboot of the Knight Rider show was basically a Ford Mustang infomercial, as the car transforms into different Ford models. Fringe was also chock full of Ford. Heroes featured tons of product placement for Sprint, Apple, Dell and other brands, but also especially Nissan.

A new growing category of product placement in science fiction, rivaling cars and computers: phones. After all, if you're under attack by aliens, you really need to be able to reach your comrades in a hurry. Hence, Jericho's and Heroes' constant pimping for Sprint, Superman Returns' constant Samsung and Virgin appearances, Cloverfield's Nokia love, etc. etc. It's pretty amazing.

But the past seven or eight years have seen an escalation in the type and intensity of product placement, especially on television. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles had one extra-long episode that was basically a Dodge Ram commercial, with long, loving close-ups. And brands started being featured heavily in stories: Smallville devoted an entire episode to Stride gum, and how it can turn you into a superhero, and Eureka pimped Degree For Men in every. single. episode. during one season, including the one where Degree provides protection from a lethally hot second sun.

In the movies, J.J. Abrams brought product placement back to Star Trek, having Kirk order a Bud Classic in a futuristic bar, and also shoving future versions of Nokia products in our faces over and over again.

The Toy Story trilogy also managed to promote a ton of brands — and then there's the LEGO Movie, which is the biggest toy commercial we've ever loved.

NBC's Chuck famously staved off cancellation by featuring Subway sandwiches in every episode, to the point where one episode had Big Mike discussing the proper condiments for a Subway foot-long for about five minutes. (And Sharknado 2 featured a shot of a man eating a Subway sandwich in front of a giant Subway poster. Subway pretty much rules product placement at this point.)

And at this point, it's almost accepted that TV shows will pause to pan lovingly over the products that have paid extra for sponsorship — the overexposure of Microsoft Surface products in CBS' Under the Dome has become an in-joke by now. Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a brand bonanza, featuring prominent placement of the Hamilton Watch, as well as Dodge trucks and Carhartt clothing.

A version of this article originally appeared in 2008 and 2009. Additional reporting by Katharine Duckett.