Apple, the other cult in Hollywood

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For most of Gossip Girl’s first four seasons, none of the hit show’s glamorous teens carried the most talked-about smartphone of the last five years: Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone. Because of a product placement deal, they could only be seen with phones chosen by Verizon Wireless. Then, this season, shortly after the deal lapsed, several main characters started receiving their “Xoxo, Gossip Girl” texts on Apple’s hit device.

The cast’s sudden conversion cost the Cupertino (Calif.)-based iPhone maker nothing. Apple has spent decades strengthening its subtle but powerful grip over Hollywood, and unlike many companies, says it never pays for its products to appear on television or in movies. The company’s gadgets were discussed or shown 891 times on TV in 2011, up from 613 in 2009, according to researcher Nielsen (NLSN). In the same year, iDevices appeared in more than 40 percent of the movies that topped the weekly box office, according to Brandchannel, which tracks product appearances. That’s nearly twice the penetration of the next most common brands in Hollywood—Dell (DELL), Chevy (GM), and Ford (F).

This dominance comes as product placement’s importance grows. Due to DVRs, fewer people watch TV ads. Many more purchasing decisions are driven by the chatter on Facebook and other social media—and much of that is driven by movies and television. And Apple’s traditional ads have carried less oomph recently, according to ad tracking firm Ace Metrix. Test audiences judged one recent ad for the iCloud online service 15 percent less favorably than previous spots. “Apple hasn’t been up to its normal brilliant performance for much of the past year,” says Ace Metrix Chief Executive Officer Peter Daboll.

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