When scriptwriters of the hit NBC show "The Office" wanted the boss character to give a cool gift that the show's co-workers would later resent, they had him hand out an iPod.
It was free publicity for the product, which is what iPod maker Apple Computer Inc. has come to expect from Hollywood.
A recent report by Nielsen Media Research prepared for the trade journal Hollywood Reporter found that Apple's products were mentioned or viewed 250 times over the past four months on TV shows around the dial. Apple racked up more than four minutes of free exposure to audiences of "The Office" alone, valuable real estate during prime time. Other shows, such as CBS's "CSI: NY," Fox's "24" and NBC's "Las Vegas," also prominently displayed products dozens of times during the same period.
Apple said it does not pay for product placement and would not discuss how its products make their way into television and films.
But Apple was one of the first technology companies to hire someone in Los Angeles to get Mac products prominently displayed in hot TV shows and movies, said Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a high-tech research and consulting firm. Today, he said, all such companies -- Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba -- have strategic Hollywood initiatives, following Apple's precedent.
"It's not an accident," Bajarin said. "This is something Apple works at. Apple has the longest history of doing this."
Disproportionate to real life
In fact, some would argue that the appearances of Apple products on TV and in movies are disproportionate to real life. While iPods, iMacs and iBooks are seemingly everywhere on-screen, Apple computers have less than 5 percent of the U.S. computer market.
An Apple product was used by Sarah Jessica Parker's character, Carrie Bradshaw, in HBO's "Sex and the City." At the end of each episode, newspaper columnist Carrie would sit pensively at her laptop next to her bedroom window and type out the theme of her latest essay, with the Apple icon prominently displayed.
On older episodes of the show "24," "good guy" characters used Apple products while the "bad guys" used Windows and non-branded PCs. This year, many of the good guys use Hewlett-Packard gear.
"Apple is the brand of people who are creative," said Lucian James, president of Agenda Inc., a brand consulting firm. "Where they are using Apple is sort of suggesting artistic-ness."
Product placement has been going on since the beginning of movies and television. In recent years, its growth has taken off in part because TV networks are looking for more ways to make up for declining ad revenue and a rapidly fragmenting audience that is finding entertainment on the Internet and on mobile devices, according to media research firm PQ Media.
Products, services exchanged for exposure
A study released by the firm last year found that 64 percent of products placed in films or TV shows are not paid for, but rather arranged through some kind of barter in which the show provides exposure in exchange for products or services. The firm projected last year that product placement on television would grow 30 percent, to $2.44 billion in 2005, and continue to climb 15 percent a year for all media through 2009.
Apple is becoming more entwined with Hollywood. Founder Steve Jobs joined the board of Walt Disney Co. after the company bought his Pixar film studio. Disney's ABC network was the first to offer episodes of popular shows for sale on the iTunes Web site. Apple started offering iTunes customers episodes of "The Office" and other NBC shows in December at a cost of $1.99 each. Apple promotes the NBC shows on its iTunes Web site.
NBC executive Vince Manze said producers of "The Office" draw the line when product placement infringes on the authenticity of the characters. "They pride themselves on being real," he said.
Indeed, actors on the show's drab workplace set do not use snazzy Apple computers, but rather black, generic desktop PCs.
Staff writer Mike Musgrove contributed to this report.