Detectives in the HBO crime series The Wire go after bad guys in Baltimore wearing shirts and tactical gear made by Under Armour. The thugs in the television show wear hats and hoodie sweat shirts manufactured by the sportswear company.
Golf characters in a Tiger Woods Golf video game play longer and better in hot weather when they put on an Under Armour polo-style shirt.
And in the movie Gridiron Gang, the team of troubled youths and their coach, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, hit the field in Under Armour uniforms.
In just a decade Under Armour has vaulted from virtual unknown to one of the most successful practitioners of product placement, getting its products - and logo - featured in films, TV shows and video games.
During the first three months of the year, Under Armour apparel appeared in cable shows nearly 3,000 times, more than any other company, according to Nielsen Media.
Most of the appearances were in MTV Road Rules, a show where reality television stars compete in athletic challenges.
Under Armour got its big break when its brand was picked up for use in an Oliver Stone football movie starring Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz. An adviser to the movie who had seen the apparel on NFL Europe players showed it to the wardrobe crew, and they liked what they saw.
Under Armour's signature product, body-hugging shirts and shorts that wick sweat from the body, were worn throughout the 1999 film, Any Given Sunday, including a much-talked-about locker room scene where the Under Armour logo was displayed prominently on a jockstrap worn by Foxx.
It was a coup for the small startup founded by Kevin Plank, giving it a chance to get its brand in front of tens of thousands of people at time when it had little money for advertising.
It was also the beginning of Under Armour's growing relationship with Hollywood.
The company now has a person on staff whose job it is to work with the wardrobe and costume people on movie and TV sitcom sets. Earlier this month, Under Armour played host for a star-studded Hollywood summit for movie producers, directors and wardrobe people during the ESPY awards - the Oscars of sports. Under Armour also sponsored the ESPYs. The company got leads on two movies and a pilot while at the event.
Under Armour no longer has to persuade people to use their products in movies. Casting directors now call on the company, which has become hugely popular among athletes.
"Under Armour has gotten to a point where Hollywood wants their product in a movie," said Mark Ellis, a former football player and the founder of Sports Studio, which choreographs sports scenes for movies. "The brand adds value and authenticity to a show. Many producers won't ask for a dime for the product, they just want the product."
Key part of strategy
Steve Battista, senior vice president for brand said product placement is a key part of Under Armour's marketing strategy.
"Campaigns come and go, but if we are creating a movement it seems much larger, and more importantly, has a greater impact if the kids and viewers see the Under Armour commercial, see real athletes on field wearing Under Armour, then see it on a TV show or movies," Battista said. "It all adds to the momentum of the movement."
Battista said there are various ways product placement deals are done. Under Armour may pay to have its gear worn in a movie, or a company may ask to purchase it from Under Armour. Or it may be part of an advertising package, or an in-kind deal, in which Under Armour supplies the gear and the movie doesn't have to pay for wardrobe.
Battista declined to give any specific financial details.
Under Armour emerged on the movie scene at the same time there was a surge in sports-related movies - and the need for sports gear - thanks to the success of films like Jerry Maguire.
Cast members from dozens of movies have worn everything from Under Armour skull caps and wristbands to its T-shirts and mock turtle necks, hats and sunglasses.
Keanu Reeves' quarterback character wore Under Armour apparel in the football movie The Replacements, as did the players in the ESPN drama Playmakers, which depicted the lives of the coaches, players and families of a football team. The high school football team in Friday Night Lights wore Under Armour uniforms, as did the character AJ in the final episode of The Sopranos when he was working out for an Army physical.
The Under Armour brand has also made appearances in video games. In Fight Night 3, former Dallas Cowboys player and Under Armour spokesman Eric "Big E" Ogbogu was one of the boxers game players could choose to be.
Product placements like these are one of the oldest forms of advertising and marketing. Soap operas are so named because of the detergent companies that used to sponsor them, said Patrick Quinn, chief executive officer of media research firm PQ Media.
It got a big boost in 2000 when producer Mark Burnett gave out bags of Doritos and Mountain Dew as refreshments on the hit TV reality show Survivor. A Pontiac Aztek was also given out as a prize.
But the practice has increased in the past several years as other traditional means of advertising, such as television commercials that new technology allows people to skip, have become less effective.
Spending on product placement increased from $523 million in 2002 to $2.9 billion last year, according to PQ Media.
Marketing experts said product placement can be effective if it's not too overt.
'More of an option'
"As the media landscape has changed, product placement is becoming more of an option for brands and agencies," Quinn said. "People are inundated with promotional messages all day long. They're skipping ads as much as possible.
"If it's done right - created with seamless integration - it can be quite effective. It can create a longer brand impression than the 30-second commercial spot," he said.
The practice, in fact, has become so widespread that the Federal Communications Commission has begun to look at whether product placement pitches have become too covert. The agency said it would consider rules to make it clearer to viewers when brand-name products appear in shows in exchange for money.
But Under Armour officials said they're very strategic about how they use product placement. Battista said that during the filming of Gridiron Gang, he asked producers to cut back on Under Armour use because he thought it was overkill.
"When we talk about brand integration and getting inside programs, it's more than putting a logo in the background or paying to have someone wear your shirt," Battista said. "You have to be extremely picky about this because you never know how it's going to end up on air."
Battista said the goal is for the product to blend into the movie or television show and not look like an advertisement. He said the company often works with film producers in the early stages of a movie.
"Being able to work with a producer or a screenwriter early on allows us to do it in a way that is organic, not intrusive to the story line and true to our brand," Battista said.
And the company gets a payoff when stars in the movies end up wearing the brand off the set. Actress Kate Hudson and actor Matthew McConaughey have been photographed wearing the gear in their free time.
"The Matthew McConaughey photo was popular with the ladies in this office," Battista said.