The history of television advertising – and especially product placement – is kind of interesting.
In the 1940s, shows were often sponsored by companies, so viewers could tune in to The Philco TV Playhouse or The Texaco Star Theater or The Voice of Firestone. Full sponsorship fell out of favor in the 1950s, to be replaced by “in-show” commercials, where actors would suddenly break out of character to endorse a product. For instance, two neighbors might go to the backyard to start a grill for a cookout, and one character would observe how fast and evenly the charcoal fired up. The other character would agree, then turn to the camera and tell the audience it was because he used Kingsford Charcoal, “the very best money could buy”. He’d pitch the product for 20-30 seconds, and then return to character.
This, too, had fallen out of fashion by the 1960s, when the standard 30 second commercial we know (and hate?) became the norm. But this put prop masters in a pickle: advertising often wouldn’t be sold until after a show had been filmed. Prop masters had no idea if Coke or Pepsi would end up buying ads for the show, so it didn’t make sense for a character to prominently use either drink. After all, if Beaver Cleaver was seen enjoying a Pepsi, Coke probably wouldn’t want to advertise on the show, right?
The solution was fictional brands. Since these fake products only existed in films and TV, there was no need to worry about irritating potential advertisers. Fake products also, in a way, liberated creators of movies and TV: although in most cases companies didn’t mind having their products used in the media, negative portrayals of their product could trigger a legal case over trademark use. For example, a TV show about a serial rapist and killer who loves Pepsi might anger Pepsi executives enough to sue for making their product look bad. So, by using fake products, this issue is avoided completely. And, in some locales, “product placement” might be banned completely. Until recently, Canada and the UK prohibited the practice on television, so fake products weren’t an option; they were the only option.
Some of these fake products were totally original, and looked different from any actual product on the market. Usually, however, the products looked a lot like a popular product. And no fake product ever looked more like its real-world counterpart, and was used in more productions, than Morley cigarettes.
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Philip Morris introduced the Marlboro brand in 1924 as a cigarette for women. Like most women’s cigarettes of the day, Marlboros had filters. In fact, Marlboros originally came with red filters to disguise lipstick marks! Since only women’s cigarettes had filters, men shunned them. So, for a long time, men only smoked unfiltered cigarettes and women mostly smoked filtered cigarettes.
Thirty years later, medical research began linking smoking with lung disease. At the time, filtered cigarettes were thought to be safer than unfiltered ones, so tobacco companies began marketing filtered cigarettes to men for the first time. But, of course, filtered cigarettes had an image problem: no man wanted to smoke them. This was the 1950s, and a man smoking a filtered cigarette might as well have been wearing a dress. So, despite the worries about lung cancer, Marlboro remained a niche brand with less than 1% market share.
Enter Leo Burnett, one the most iconic admen of all time. Burnett created Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Charlie the Tuna and Morris the Cat, among others. When Philip Morris contacted him about the Marlboro brand, Burnett tried to think of the most macho, most American image he could. And he came up one of the most successful advertising icons in history: the Marlboro Man.
To say the Marlboro Man was “popular” would be a gross understatement. Men soon started buying Marlboros in droves, and the brand that once had a less than 1% share of the US market became the single most popular cigarette brand in the entire world. And it wasn’t just the stroke of Burnett’s genius, it was a stroke of luck, too. When cigarette ads were banned on TV and radio in 1970, the Marlboro Man actually increased the brand’s market share, as he easily made the transition to magazine ads and billboards. Other once-popular brands, such as Lucky Strike, weren’t nearly as… well, lucky.
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The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the most popular comedies of its time. Dick Van Dyke starred as Rob Petrie, the head writer of a fictitious comedy series called The Alan Brady Show. The series was revolutionary on several levels: for one, viewers got a behind the scenes look at how TV was made as Rob dealt with his writers, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). And although Rob’s family – wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Richie (Larry Mathews) – were still somewhat of a “happy suburban family” TV stereotype, Laura was significantly more independent-minded than say, June Cleaver or Margaret Anderson. It wasn’t Father Knows Best… it was more like Father Might Know Best.
On December 19, 1961, an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show aired in which Pickles (Buddy’s wife) brings Richie a box of candy cigarettes. Candy cigarettes had always aped the brand names and packaging of real cigarette brands .”Mustangs” looked like a pack of Marlboros, “Target” looked like Lucky Strike, and “Kings” looked like Pall Malls. So the show’s prop masters must have had this in mind when they invented a “fake fake” brand of candy cigarettes for the show: Morleys (“Marleys” were a popular nickname for Marlboros at the time).
A set designer must have been paying attention somewhere. Because although Morleys disappeared for almost two years, they reappeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone in September 1963. In the episode, entitled “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, William Shatner plays a salesman, recovering from a nervous breakdown he’d had six months earlier, who is on a commercial airline flight. He looks out the window and sees a gremlin on the wing messing with some wires. Every time Bob tries to tell his wife or flight crew about it, the gremlin jumps out of view.
This, of course, makes his wife think he’s going crazy again. But Bob is terrified that the plane will crash if he doesn’t do something, so he steals a policeman’s gun and opens an exit door. Although he successfully shoots the gremlin, as soon as the plane lands he’s taken away to the nearest sanitarium. More importantly, at one point Shatner is seen trying to light up a Morley before being stopped by his wife, who points out that the “No Smoking” sign is still on.
[If the story sounds familiar, it’s because the episode was remade in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie with John Lithgow in Shatner’s role. The episode was also parodied by The Simpsons in “Treehouse of Horror IV”, and in Muppets Tonight, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and The Bernie Mac Show.]
I don’t know what exactly happened next. I know tons of filmmakers and writers were influenced by The Twilight Zone, so perhaps they used Morleys in their shows and films as a kind of “tribute”. Perhaps all the prop masters of Hollywood got together and decided to make Morley the default fake brand of cigarettes. Maybe some third-party prop provider made a batch of 1,500 fake packs of Morleys and they’re just what’s available. It’s even possible that Philip Morris paid someone under the table to use Morleys, since they’re so obviously a clone of Marlboros.
But what I do know is this: Morleys have appeared almost everywhere on TV since that episode of The Twilight Zone. Actors can be seen smoking Morleys in The X-Files (The Smoking Man puffed on them constantly!), Weeds, Burn Notice, Lost, Californication, Malcolm in the Middle, The L Word, American Horror Story, the original Beverly Hills 90210, Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Judging Amy, 24, The Walking Dead, Cold Case, Heroes, That ’70s Show, Everybody Hates Chris, Reaper, Millennium, Pushing Daisies, Nash Bridges, Saving Grace, Prison Break, CSI: NY, The Outer Limits, Special Unit 2, the original Mission: Impossible TV show, Medium, Jake 2.0, Criminal Minds, Sordid Lives: The Series, Killer Instinct, Becker, New Amsterdam, Space: Above and Beyond, and ER. Some films using the brand include Definitely, Maybe, Murder in the First, Epicenter, 200 Cigarettes, The Traveler, Brooklyn Rules, Murderers’ Row, Gun Shy, Prozac Nation, S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale, Spy Game, Thirteen, Platoon, and Freddy Got Fingered. And Morleys even appear in the video game System Shock 2!
While we’re here, let’s take a look at a few other fictional brands:
Heisler Beer is made by Independent Studio Services (ISS), the largest prop company in the United States. Characters have been seen drinking Heisler in New Girl, My Name is Earl, Bones, The Unit, Happy Endings, Burn Notice, Desperate Housewives, The Shield, Heroes, Everybody Hates Chris, How I Met Your Mother, Two and Half Men, Weeds, Dollhouse and the recent Bionic Woman remake. Films like Stealing Harvard, The Recruit, Beerfest, Superbad and Training Day also showed characters drinking Heisler. ISS makes several other brands, just for variety. These include Jekyll Island, Penzburg, O’Farren, Olde British 600, Brockman, Cerveza Clara, El Brazo, FG, Haberkern and Light (which looks like Coors Light). Check out all the varieties here. Amusingly, ISS also used to make fake banknotes as well, but was ordered to stop by the Secret Service after a billion dollar’s worth of fake notes were blown up in Las Vegas as part of a stunt for the film Rush Hour 2. Not all the bills were destroyed in the blast, and the wind blew notes as far way as Los Angeles and Minneapolis!
Oceanic Airlines has a interesting history. Although most people think of the TV show Lost when they hear the name, the brand was actually created for the 1996 Kurt Russell film Executive Decision. For that movie, two 747s were painted with Oceanic livery and flown around and filmed to make stock footage. It’s no surprise that renting a pair of 747s, painting them and flying them around is insanely expensive, so several filmmakers have reused the Executive Decision footage: the made-for-TV movie Panic in the Skies!, the Fox comedy The War at Home, the Dick Van Dyke show Diagnosis: Murder, the Brett Ratner film After the Sunset, the old CBS show JAG, and the mini-series Category 6: Day of Destruction all reused the Decision footage. And those who like bloopers might enjoy the 2000 Jack Wagner TV movie Nowhere to Land, where poorly edited Decision footage shows the plane taking off with a gaping hole in the fuselage! Lost did redo Oceanic’s logo to the Aboriginal painting we’re all familiar with, and since then the fake airline has appeared in Alias (not surprising, since J.J. Abrams did both shows), Fringe, Chuck, FastForward, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Futurama, Pushing Daisies and the BBC Radio 4 sitcom Cabin Pressure. Oceanic Airlines was also used by Steve Jobs at the iOS 3 launch, where he opened a flight confirmation email to demonstrate the cut and paste features on the iPhone 3G.
Speaking of tech stuff, Contoso Corporation is a fake company created by Microsoft for use in seminars and product demonstrations. If you’ve ever been to a Microsoft product launch, demonstration or training session, chances are good that you’ve seen Contoso’s SharePoint site, Exchange accounts, Active Directory schema and more. Other fake companies created by Microsoft include AdventureWorks Cycles (used in CRM, BizTalk and SQL demos), Alpine Ski House (used as an example company in Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server 2007), Balwin Museum of Science (used in a single MapPoint .Net demo), Blue Yonder Airlines, City Power & Light, Coho Vinyard (also Coho Winery), Contoso Bank (used as an example for Internet Explorer’s SmartScreen filter; if you’re using IE click here to see what a blocked site looks like), Fabrikam, Inc. (formerly Microsoft’s main fake company, but since superseded by Contoso), Fourth Coffee (used as a demo for Office Live), Humongous Insurance, Itexamworld.com, LitWare Inc., Lucerne Publishing, Margie’s Travel, Northridge Video, Northwind Traders (also once common, now mostly used in MS Access demos), Parnell Aerospace, ProseWare, Inc., TailSpin Toys (an obscure one!), The Phone Company (that’s literal!), Trey Research Inc. (old timers might remember that one), WingTip Toys (used as a demo for FrontPage 2003 and also in the “Small Business Server 2003 Test Drive”), Wide World Importers and Woodgrove Bank. As an April Fool’s prank last year, Google issued a press release saying that Contoso had dropped Microsoft’s office suite in favor of Google Apps.
One last tech item: Finder-Spyder is a fake search engine often used in TV and movies. The funny thing about it is that it’s been updated over the years. At first, the fake site mimicked the cluttered look of Yahoo!, but in the past few years has started to embrace the minimalist design of Google. You can find Spyder-Finder in Journeyman, Moonlight, Veronica Mars, Prison Break, CSI, Hidden Palms, Criminal Minds, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, Dexter and Breaking Bad, to name just a few.
And lastly, Gannon Car Rentals appeared in at least six episodes of Lost, at least four episodes of Heroes, and in at least one episode of Nip/Tuck.