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Apple's Secret Marketing Machine

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AdAge has released the 2011 list of America's biggest-spending advertisers. Topped by Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) as usual in a blowout performance with 53% higher marketing spending than No. 2 AT&T (NYSE: T  ) , the list carries few surprises.

Except this perennial head-scratcher: How can Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) slide in at a very modest 86th spot, up from No. 100 in 2010?

Let me clarify my bewilderment. TV ads for Apple are few and far between, unlike the marketing blitz that established the iPod and iTunes brands so long ago. Billboards? Also few and far between -- too gauche. There's a smattering of magazine ads, but hardly a massive campaign.

But have you seen a movie lately?

That's where the Apple action is.

For example, Viacom's Paramount gave plenty of product-placement screen time to several paying partners in the current box-office champ, Green Lantern. That includes a duo of Macs for the hero's love interest, prominently placed in an important scene. What makes Green Lantern different is that some characters actually don't use a Mac. I'm told there are Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) and Panasonic (NYSE: PC  ) computers in the movie as well.

Starting in 2006, Apple adamantly claimed not to pay Hollywood for product-placement opportunities. Yet it's come to this: If major characters use anything other than Apple computers, it's going to be a Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) Vaio because the movie was produced by Sony Pictures or sister studio Columbia. Go ahead, try it as a drinking game -- it's a very dependable metric.

I'd understand if Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) threw in the occasional gratuitous Mac plug, since Steve Jobs is the company's largest shareholder. But it's bigger than that, and the Apple allegiance crosses every studio line except, of course, direct computer competitor Sony. Brandcameo says that 30% of the top-grossing movies in 2010 featured Apple products, down from almost 50% in 2009 and market-leading in both cases. I guess that means we had fewer movies with on-screen computers in 2010.

It wasn't always like this, even if you wanted to avoid the Windows trademark. Jurassic Park featured generic Unix computers, and the computers in The Matrix are so vanilla that I can't figure out the brand of Neo's office desktop. But Macs are everywhere now.

So what's going on? Is Apple paying studios big bucks under the table? Are film directors just using Apple stuff as a proxy for the good guys and the cool kids? It's either the greatest cover-up operation in marketing history or the finest free ad program I've ever seen.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Procter & Gamble, Apple, Walt Disney, and AT&T and have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2011, at 8:33 PM, steveonyx wrote:

    Interesting article. I doubt that Apple is paying for these product placements. Apple = cool and in the moving making business coolness is a requirement. Plus at the end of the day, consumers and business have started down the path of iOS as a superior OS that provide a lower TCO even though there is a higher initial price tag.

    Going forward, the only movies that are going to feature Windows machines are going to be historical movies that capture the time period between 1980 and 2005.

    Apple is changing the computing landscape and I'm making plenty of money along the way. Check out my Apple trades at

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2011, at 8:37 PM, mdejongd wrote:

    Well here is what happens here in Canada. I work for a reseller selling Apple Gear. Movie production companies send out a rep to a dealer such as us and rent the computer for a period of time. They want Apple Gear mainly because it is simplistic setup and looks more hi tech then typical windows gear. Most big box stores are not into renting. Their loss my gain. Apple doesn't have to pay anyone big bucks. Apple has just done it right by building great looking products.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2011, at 10:29 PM, skippywonder wrote:

    It's obvious that Macs are chosen for their look. They have clean lines and a modern feel.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2011, at 10:58 PM, GhotiFool wrote:

    Movies may be favoring Apple but product logos in television shows is another story altogether. It is not uncommon for producers to spend big money in postproduction to paint out Apple logos from the many obvious MacBook Pros sitting on desks and being used by characters during the filming. Sometimes smart prop masters and set decorators will place a sticker over the Apple logo in order to save a few bucks by having to later remove them electronically.

    This extends to many products other than Apple computers. Car logos are often removed or obscured. Packaged products like breakfast cereal and beer are rendered unrecognizable.

    Why? It was explained to me that an Apple computer in a TV show, for example, might conflict with advertising time purchased by a competitor. This is no small matter and many hours and dollars are spent removing product labels and logos and many special effects artists make this part of their living. Yes, products are often "placed" intentionally in movies and TV shows, for a fee, and sometimes they have to be added later by painting them into a scene. Don't believe everything you do or don't see on TV.

  • Report this Comment On June 22, 2011, at 1:48 AM, demodave wrote:

    Apple's Secret Marketing Machine? Current customers. The evangelical fanbois and fangrrrls. Duh!

    Agree also that many obvious logos are blurred out. Don't much need to advertise. Apple is hip, slick, sexy, and cool.

    And profitable. Long AAPL. Also duh.

  • Report this Comment On June 22, 2011, at 1:50 AM, Soorena1 wrote:

    It's a Sony or Nothing.

    Sorry guys, but I'm biased and Sony has NEVER treated me wrong.

  • Report this Comment On June 22, 2011, at 3:47 AM, fatmonk wrote:

    The best salesman is your customers...

  • Report this Comment On June 22, 2011, at 2:52 PM, jekoslosky wrote:

    Apple's customers serve as the best "brand ambassadors" I've ever seen. They're loyal and a bit messianic -- promoting the company and its products at any chance.

    Best of all, they're free.

    Another reason why I've been building up AAPL in my portfolio, here:

    Now, my second largest holding.

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