Word about a new hip-hop song with a line about Polaroid pictures began to create a quiet buzz at the camera company's headquarters in Massachusetts last summer.
Then the buzz became a roar.
The Grammy-winning song by OutKast, "Hey Ya," and its catch phrase "Shake it like a Polaroid picture" begin to shoot up the music charts. Entertainment Weekly described it as one of the hottest lines of the year. Everyone from a 59-year-old presidential candidate to teen-agers not even born during the camera's heyday were singing along.
It's the kind of lucky break any company would wish for, and far from what Polaroid Corp. ever imagined. The company's image was suddenly elevated into the realm of what's cool. Although the value of the publicity is incalculable, companies in general go to enormous lengths and expense to attain it.
The song has shaken up Polaroid's tired image as a throwback technology. Its paper pictures appear a little more hip now to a digital-camera generation (even though the company had to issue a disclaimer after the song's rise that its instant photographs no longer need shaking to dry).
"We certainly have enjoyed the publicity," Polaroid spokesman Skip Colcord said. "We're very thankful for the different brand exposure the song has given us."
The Waltham, Mass., company had no idea its name would appear in the song, he said.
A privately held company, Polaroid doesn't release sales numbers and won't say whether revenue is up. But the company's awareness meter has definitely jumped.
"Polaroid is retro, something we think of having when we were kids," said Jennifer Chang Coupland, a professor of marketing at Pennsylvania State University. "But they're also trying to update Polaroid and make it fun and hip again. In some ways it has helped revive Polaroid."
Recognizing the opportunity, Polaroid's advertising company, Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners, brokered a deal with Outkast to carry the cameras on stage during performances. They held the cameras at the Grammy Awards, New Year's Eve performances, on Saturday Night Live and at the Vibe Awards on Viacom's UPN.
OutKast's double album "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" has sold 7 million copies and been on the Billboard 100 Top Five for 21 weeks. The group performed the song before millions of viewers at the Grammys, MTV music awards and the halftime show at the National Basketball Association All-Star Game.
Even though hip-hop is increasingly mainstream, the Polaroid line has reached into new territory.
"I don't know much about hip-hop. But I do know how OutKast can make you shake it like a Polaroid picture," said retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark during a campaign stop before he abandoned his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Teen magazine Elle Girl recently ran the phrase on the spine of its publication for no apparent reason other than the enormous popularity.
Many consumer products have been helped over the years by mention in a song or an appearance in a movie, television show or music video - sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate. Manufacturers of everything from cigarettes to greeting cards have sponsored shows since the birth of broadcasting to get their name attached to popular media, but product placements are a more recent outgrowth.
Companies first realized the benefit of such "product placement" in 1982 when Reese's Pieces were eaten by the orphan alien in E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, one of the top-grossing movies of all time.
Hershey Co., which paid nothing for the appearance, saw a 65 percent spike in sales of the candy, which were little known at the time compared to Mars Inc.'s M&Ms.;
Since then, companies have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases to get their products in movies and songs.
Apple Computer Inc. created a staff position to accomplish that sole purpose. Its computers have appeared in more than 1,500 television shows and movies.
The hit television series Seinfeld did wonders for an array of foods, from Snapple beverages to Pez candy to Junior Mints, by incorporating the products into storylines. Snapple has a contract with a product placement agency that searches out such opportunities.
"We've become reliant on it as part of our marketing mix," said Steve Jarmon, a Snapple spokesman.
The practice has become so frequent that a Portland, Ore.-based advocacy group Commercial Alert filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission last year to complain about the rising tide of subliminal advertising.
"It's inherently deceptive because people don't realize they're watching ads," said Gary Ruskin, the group's executive director. "They're basically turning television into an infomercial medium."
Emerging technologies, such as TiVo boxes that allow viewers to override commercials more easily, make product placement even more attractive.
"Advertisers are totally freaked out," said Sean Carton, chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners Inc., a Baltimore ad firm. "Now you have the ability to skip the commercial, which is the worst case scenario for advertisers."
Accidental placements, such as OutKast's Polaroid reference, are becoming less common because of the potential financial gains for doing it intentionally, but there are examples.
When rappers Run DMC sang about "My Adidas," the sneakers instantly gained popularity among inner-city youth. Busta Rhymes' hit collaboration with P. Diddy and Pharrell, "Pass the Courvoisier Part II," helped worldwide sales of Courvoisier jump 20 percent, according to the Beverage Network, a trade journal, even though Courvoisier paid nothing for the publicity.
Polaroid is the latest beneficiary.
"It's such a wonderful coincidence for Polaroid," said David Aron, professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago. "Now suddenly they're getting all this attention. They can make their product more relevant to a generation of people who don't know who they are."