Steve Jobs’ Hollywood Legacy: Apple Product Placement as Cultural Clout


During Steve Jobs’ time at Apple, the brand came to overshadow all of its competitors in the technology sphere, if not by pure sales then by brand allegiance and influence. Apple’s impact on the field of product placement was no different.

In the last decade (2001-today), Apple-branded products appeared in one-third of all number one films at the US box office (124 of the 366). That is second only to Ford (152 of 334) and well ahead of third-place Coca-Cola (96 of 334). In the last three years, 2009-2011, Apple has appeared in more #1 films than any other brand.

As with the tech marketplace itself, Apple’s leadership in product placement drove its rivals to play catch-up. In honor of Jobs’ legacy, here are some of Apple’s greatest product placement accomplishments on the big and small screen.[more]

Short Circuit
The short Apple Macintosh placement in 1986’s Short Circuit may be the computer’s first ever major role on the big screen. It was certainly the first ever Apple product placement “unboxing.”

Mission Impossible / Independence Day
Both of these 1996 films represented Apple’s comeback period when its product placement efforts were paid for and acknowledged by the brand. Led by industry pioneer Suzanne Forlenza, then Apple’s manager of product placement, Apple took out ads in magazines calling attention to its role in Mission Impossible. This period also saw Apple prominently on TV in the shows Seinfeld, Dharma & Greg, Felicity, The Drew Carey Show, Veronica’s Closet, Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Files, MTV’s The Real World and Just Shoot Me.

Probably not coincidentally, 1996 saw the return to Apple of Steve Jobs.

Sex and the City / You’ve Got Mail
With Jobs righting Apple’s ship, the brand showed its softer side onscreen in 1998, becoming the computer of choice in the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks romcom You’ve Got Mail and Carrie Bradshaw’s constant companion in Sex and the City. The total value of the exposure Apple got from that HBO starring role alone is immeasurable. Carrie’s Apple crush is likely the most influential Apple product placement of all time and probably one of the ten most influential product placements of all time period, right up there with E.T.‘s Reese’s Pieces coup. During its tenure on Sex and the City, Apple realized the advertising potential and flipped its logo “upside down.”

Legally Blonde
Three years after appearing in Sex and the City, Apple’s onscreen influence as a lifestyle choice for young women was cemented when Elle Woods choose a sherbet iBook in Legally Blonde. Framed in scenes as the choice of the standout, Apple’s Legally Blonde product placement was an embodiment of its “Think Different” motto. Also, the scenes with Apple product placements came at the expense of the Apple’s PC peers, framing the black PCs as the choice of the borg.

Blade: Trinity
This 2004 film represents both Apple’s apex of product placement dominance and its recognition that the marketing practice can aid a product launch. As iPod teetered on the edge of success, Jessica Biel’s vampire slayer added a little sexed up mass market appeal, taking the device from exclusive accessory of music-snobs and gadget dorks to the Maxim magazine set. The film was such an ad for Apple, that interviewers asked Biel about it. From Movie Web 2004:

Movie Web: You didn’t get free iPods for the movie?

Jessica Biel: No. Apple/Mac didn’t give us anything. They were really stingy.

Movie Web: So it wasn’t intentional product placement?

Jessica Biel: I don’t know, but David said the other day people think we must be getting so much free stuff but we didn’t get anything.

Movie Web: How many people have asked you the iPod question today?

Jessica Biel: I think three.

Apple’s most non-Apple product placement ever transcended the proactive placement and showed that the brand association was so strong it could influence a film in which its products barely appeared. Wall-E cemented the design aesthetic of shiny, clean and white-and in the process was called the ultimate subconscious Apple product placement (case in point: the film’s use of the audible Apple start-up ‘boing.’) Subsequent films would see Apple credited despite no involvement. For 2009’s rebooted Star Trek, director JJ Abrams joked of the new starships set, “People would joke, ‘Where’s the Genius Bar?… To me, the bridge is so cool, it makes the Apple Store look uncool.”

Something’s Gotta Give / It’s Complicated
The You’ve Got Mails of the 21st century, these two films took Apple product placement and targeted it at the aging boomer set just learning to connect through technology and social media. Both of these films featured boomer icons Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton web-chatting away with their Apple MacBooks. Almost 30 years after Keaton set the shook up style with a necktie in Annie Hall, she was again trail blazing for her generation by going online for romance (with her Mac).

To balance out its placements on the oversexed Sex and the City series, Apple became the choice of the undersexed Twilight heroine. Every one of Twilight‘s millions of rabid fans now know that Bella uses a shiny new MacBook and iPod. Interestingly, the original Twilight book describes Bella’s computer as “old” and “second hand.” At one point, she even complains that the “screen was covered in pop-up ads.”

Stephen Colbert & Saturday Night Live
Apple has kept its cool cred by being the go-to tech brand for hip comedy on TV, where the edgiest comedians are openly associated with Apple products. Stephen Colbert has even made a game of it.

Shows featuring Saturday Night Live alums seem especially Apple product placement prone. Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Up All Night all feature both former SNL stars and writers and heavy Apple product placement. It’s noteworthy that SNL break-out Kristin Wiig’s summer hit Bridesmaids featured healthy shots of Apple product placement.

Elsewhere on NBC, 30 Rock‘s Apple love is beyond the pale, from the large number of Mac desktops and laptops to all the iPhones. (Alec Baldwin paid tribute to Jobs and Apple on his Twitter feed after the news broke.) That the show is watched by cultural elites reinforces that Apple’s brand is irreverent, convention-defying and hiply sarcastic.

As with the MacBooks, iMacs, iPhones, and iPods, it appears Apple’s iPad is following its siblings product placement footprints, from 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon to Friends with Benefits.

Apple’s dominance in entertainment and the product placement field has inspired its rivals to try and catch up.

In recent years, Sony Pictures has attempted a complete elimination of Apple from its films, replacing them with Vaio-branded notebooks at every opportunity. Even so, Apple’s onscreen casting appears impossible to match. Consider that after HP signed a hefty product placement deal for product placeent in Sex and the City 2, the final film still featured a MacBook and an iPhone.