The McCann Time Capsule: A Christmas (and Product Placement) Tradition
The 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a holiday season TV tradition, as it tells the heartwarming, even tear-jerking story of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey getting a second chance at life and realizing what’s really important. Now regarded as one of the most popular movies of all time, it was also a famous marker in the history of product placements, which included McCann’s Hollywood office getting into the act.
The film, which started its three-month production schedule on April 15, 1946, includes a scene in a drugstore filled with branded products and ads. These placements were not there accidentally, as confirmed by a May 8, 1946 McCann newsletter item headlined “Hollywood Office Reports.”
The blurb notes that “August Bruhn has been out on location with the new three-million-dollar Jimmy Stewart picture, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ trying to get some of our clients’ products into the interior and exterior retail shop sequences.” Bruhn, who had first joined McCann’s San Francisco office in 1918, was by the mid-1940s the manager of the Hollywood office, a radio programming branch of the New York-based Central Radio Department.
Was Bruhn successful? Well at least one McCann client, Vaseline hair tonic, made it into the drugstore scenes along with a dozen other brands. While Coca-Cola is famously listed as one of those placements in the film, it was not yet a McCann U.S. client at the time.
Less clear is whether product placement was intentional in one of the film industry’s earliest examples, one that generated controversy when it appeared in the 1920 comedy short “The Garage,” that starred Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Ads for Standard Oil of California’s Red Crown gasoline and Zerolene motor oil appeared in the movie much to the displeasure of the motion picture industry weekly trade magazine “Harrison’s Report.” Said the publication: "Exhibitors of Los Angeles might ask Mr. Arbuckle how much he received for advertising Red Crown gasoline, handled by almost every Oil Station in their city. The trade mark of that product appears in numerous scenes on the portable gasoline pump. If he states it was an oversight, it would be well to caution him to avoid such oversights in the future.”
It’s also unclear if McCann played any role in that frowned-upon example of commercialism. But Standard Oil of California (Chevron) was the client McCann opened its San Francisco office with in 1913, the year in which it also created the first advertising for the Red Crown gasoline brand.