11 Ways Apple Used Product Placement To Mess With Your Subconscious

Call it creativity, call it reckless abandon, call it fearlessness. The fact is, Apple’s never been too shy to grab its target audience by the shoulders and insist “you’ve got to try this.” Its eerily predictive “1984” ad, directed by Ridley Scott, still stands as a testament to what a simple commercial spot can do to inspire the imagination of potential consumers – and to challenge the status quo in terms of both product and marketing innovation.

Of course, the times, they are a-changin’, and with DVR and streaming video services it looks more and more like television commercials are old and busted. It may be a long time before they go away for good (or likelier, adapt in such a way that causes viewers to think of them as less intrusive and more compelling). For a company to survive, it’s going to have to be well ahead of the curve.

Product Placement’s Shortcomings Versus the Apple Strategy

Doing so has been important for companies like Apple, particularly since it’s been established that product placement is an effective marketing strategy when used appropriately. Whereas companies like Coca-Cola and Ford have historically paid insane amounts of money for product placement in TV shows and movies, product prominence has become something of a nuisance to the viewer. Compare that to Apple, whose flagship product offerings are virtually synonymous with smart phones, MP3 players, laptops, tablets, you name it – and whose products appeared in more than one third of all box-office hits throughout the 2000s.

What’s more impressive than that? How incredibly effective Apple’s product placement is.

What’s even more impressive? Apple doesn’t pay a dime for product placement.

Let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable moments in Apple product placement.

1)      Star Trek IV (1984). You remember Star Trek IV, right? No? What if we mention its subtitle, The Voyage Home, and the whales, and that unforgettable scene where Scotty attempts to beam up a plan to save those whales – and the world – by talking into a computer mouse? The Macintosh Plus turned out to be the Enterprise’s saving grace, despite the implication that the technology wasn’t advanced enough for his liking. (Lighten up, Scotty. It worked, didn’t it?) Even so, one can’t help but marvel at the fact that the Mac Plus was considered advanced enough to interface with technology hundreds of years into the future, a testament to the perception of the computer’s abilities in 1984.

2)      Back to the Future 2 (1989). We can only imagine what Apple’s going to offer us by 2015, when the 1985 version of Marty McFly is due to visit Hill Valley’s antique store. One of a number of things that the movie got right about the future was the once-popular Macintosh computer collecting dust in the window of an antique store. What a curiosity, considering the processing power of the iPhone Doc is sure to bring with him to the Wild West in the third installment.

Check out the video below – the fun starts around 1:44.

What’s brilliant about this piece of product placement is the implication – that the Macintosh computer, which was expressly a product of the future, would (at the time) unfathomably end up in an antique store in just three decades’ time!  As with the Star Trek flick, this moment captured, in a sense, the enduring popularity of Apple products.

3)      Mission: Impossible (1996).  With Apple struggling in the 90s, Marketing Manager John Holtzman developed a plan – instead of offering filmmakers outdated devices, which tended to make set decoration seem less realistic, why not offer them up-and-coming product models to sweeten the product placement deal? Along with this decision came a couple of key realizations; to wit, the Apple PowerBook logo faced the user when the laptop was closed, but was upside-down when opened. Holtzman required stickers to be placed to the laptops so that they’d face the television or movie viewer, which was adopted by Steve Jobs as a company-wide strategy in 1997. In 1996 – again, with no money changing hands – Apple got its PowerBook a starring role in Brian de Palma’s Mission: Impossible revamp, restoring its image as a cutting-edge machine built for the future, and kick-starting the company’s push toward product prominence in the 2000s.

4)     Independence Day (1996).  Just months after Tom Cruise saved the United States from a potential international conflict, an intergalactic struggle was narrowly avoided thanks to the inspiration of President Bill Pullman (God bless ‘im), and the quick-thinking of Jeff Goldblum, whose Apple Macintosh PowerBook 5300 was able to upload a virus directly into the mothership’s operating system.

Now how, you might ask, would a piece of Apple technology (advanced though it may be) be able to take down an alien civilization with thousands, perhaps millions, of years worth of technological innovation? This has been a topic for discussion for nearly two decades now, but as it turns out, the plot point isn’t so far-fetched within the context of the film. According to scientists in the flick, the 1947 Roswell Incident recovered an alien vessel whose technology was studied at Area 51 for some five decades, with many of its advances incorporated into the latest and greatest innovations in global computing.

(If that’s not enough to convince you of the logic, other people have given it more thought than we have. A lot more thought.)

Once again, Apple comes out looking like the technology of the future, which in the right hands can outsmart space aliens whose ships travel at light-speed.

5)      You’ve Got Mail (1998). This sweet romantic comedy drew a distinct parallel between dying industries and the trends that threatened to put them out of business. Ironically, the business in question was a mom-and-pop bookstore which faced an uphill battle against a huge conglomerate. Fast-forward to today when even the conglomerates are struggling against digital book sales for tablet devices, the most popular of which is – gasp! – the iPad. In any event, watch the trailer and count the times you see that sexy Apple laptop:

While corporate curmudgeon Tom Hanks favors the uptight businessman’s IBM desktop, free-spirited and independent Meg Ryan prefers her sleek PowerBook 3400. Whenever it came to the heroine of the movie tapping out an email, Apple dominated the screen.

Yet again, while other companies ostensibly paid for placement, again, Apple didn’t.

6)      Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).  With the inclusion in this third installment of the highly popular film series, Apple’s 21st century push for product prominence was in full swing by 2002. This time it was the PowerBook G4 that was featured, once again implying that when it comes to spies and espionage, the power of an Apple can’t be matched. (Interesting how easily a spy from the ’60s and a foxy glamour girl from the ’70s can use such an incredible piece of technology, perhaps a nod to Apple’s imminently user-friendly interface. Even your totally groovy granddad will love it, baby.)

7)      The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). When you want to sell your stuff on eBay, it turns out that an all-in-one iMac was your best bet back in 2005. The 27 featured products and nearly 60 appearances only netted Apple 2% of all product placements and 37 seconds of screen time. However, look for its appearance in this memorable scene where a confidence-lacking Steve Carell attempts to make conversation with a customer who slipped him her phone number.

(Earmuffs for the kids, please; this one’s got a foul language alert.)

8)      “The Office” and others (2006).  A Washington Post article from 2006 described how Apple products seemed to be dominating the small screen, particularly on network television’s most popular shows: “CSI: NY,” on CBS Fox’s (recently resurrected) “24” and “Las Vegas,” which appeared on NBC. However, the focus of the article was on a particular scene in a beloved show that just wrapped this past year. You know the one.


“The Office” was one of television’s most popular programs in 2006, and one episode prominently featured bumbling boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell, by now of 40-Year-Old Virgin fame) giving one of his employees a gift that would turn the rest of the office green with envy. That gift happened to be an iPod. If you remember the episode, the scheme worked.

9)      Sex and the City (2008). While this show is known for its use of Apple products throughout its run (check out the upside-down logo in season 6, a confusing reversal of Jobs’ positioning policy), the first spin-off flick gave Apple products more than ten minutes of screen time – of the dozens of products and appearances in the film, Apple scored 13% of all featured products. The message here is pretty clear: a decade after Meg Ryan used her PowerBook 3400 to woo Tom Hanks, the choice for the independent woman looking for love (or, uh, something like it) remained Apple.

10)      “Modern Family” (2010).  Product placement is one thing, but this episode of Modern Family got a ton of attention when it featured a story line that revolved around the iPad before the product even hit the shelves. Unfortunately Dad’s highly anticipated iPad wasn’t pre-ordered in time for his birthday, so the family scrambles to procure one just in the nick of time. This clever marketing trick played on the near-pandemonium surrounding the June 2007 release of the iPhone, positioning its amazing new product as the must-have device of 2010. What’s so great about this placement, as alluded to in the article, is that it touts the iPad as a revolutionary piece of technology while simultaneously being suited the average guy.

It was a match made in Heaven on the hit television show, by the way. According to Modern Dad Phil Dunphy, it was “like Steve Jobs and God got together to say, ‘We love you, Phil’”:

11)   “House of Cards” (2013).  How many Apple devices can you fit into a scene? The current record is nine, set by Netflix’s critical darling “House of Cards,” starring the inimitable Kevin Spacey. Although an initial review from Engadget was harshly critical of the product placement, as it turns out, it makes perfect sense in the context of the scene: they were monitoring police scanners, news reports, and waiting on important calls from colleagues in an attempt to stay precisely up-to-the-moment.

The Engadget editorial was updated shortly thereafter to clear up any initial incredulity. The revision explains that the product placement was the decision of the producers, who 1) had mainly Apple devices at their disposal, and 2) felt that, in keeping with the show’s realism, they were the most appropriate choice. The ubiquity of Apple products actually enhances the scene rather than distracts from, making the product placement both a smart move on the part of Apple and the producers of “House of Cards.”  As one reviewer pointed out, “in most instances [Apple’s product placement] actually lends more to the credibility of the show.”

Well, there’s our not-so-brief rundown of Apple’s product placement in television and film – but the takeaway point here isn’t just that it happens, or even that Apple doesn’t pay for it. Rather, it’s that fact that in a word of advertising gone amok, Apple’s approach to product placement is actually working like gangbusters. Given the widespread popularity of their product offerings among techies and tech-illiterates, early adopters and latecomers, it’s clearly a winning strategy that’s likely to continue well into the future.

For more Apple product placement history, check out the great infographic from AnyClip below!

Apple Products Throughout Film History, courtesy of AnyClip.

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