Is David Letterman a Corporate Shill?

While David Letterman isn’t as prolific as Jay Leno with his in-show hawking, Letterman does shower his opening monologues with products. Applebee’s and Hooters are frequent mentions. But very often, Letterman will name a product and speak of it in a way that is reminiscent of a commercial. Watch how Letterman names KOA at the 0:10 mark and starts talking about KOA’s electrical hookup, swimming pools, and vending machines. (Paul Shaffer is heard reinforcing this by responding, “They have everything you need.”) Later, in the same show, Letterman’s writers have embedded StairMaster into a joke. Letterman is also given the opportunity to drop a few products during the Stupid Pet Tricks segment. Presumably, the chihuahua was chosen not because of the trick, but in order for Letterman to offer the crack about the Taco Bell chihuahua.

One fishy quality on Late Show (and not even Leno does this quite so explicitly with his guests) is the way that products enter into these interviews. We’ll see a particularly offensive example of a product within an interview in a future segment of the “Corporate Shill” series which I’ll be unloading later in the week. But for the moment, observe how The Mentalist star Simon Baker drops Kmart and Mars Bar into his story. Why can’t Baker simply say that his mother worked as a security guard? And why does Baker say “Mars Bar” instead of “candy bar?” Might it have something to do with the fact that Mars Inc is a major advertiser on Letterman? [UPDATE: A commenter points out that the Mars Bar was discontinued in the States in 2000, replaced by the Snickers Almond.]

But perhaps the most astonishing moment here is Prime Minister John Key pushing Cinnabon while reading the top ten list. As we shall see, world leaders are fair game for hawking products, often without knowing it.


  1. When comparing this and the aforementioned Leno video, I have to say it’s pretty much night and day in terms of the “shilling” as you describe. A lot of Leno’s stuff (including the very, very blatant Bing bit) is obvious corporate shilling.

    Letterman’s stuff, on the other hand, seems to just spur from the fact that he comments on culture and current events, and like it or not corporate brands are part of our culture and our news. The examples in this video don’t really feel like shilling to me. The mention of KOA (C(K?)ampgrounds of America) is obviously part of a joke, and I’ve never seen an ad for KOA on Letterman’s show (I’ve actually never seen one, anywhere). The jokes about Applebees are spun from the fact that Applebees is a ubiqutous restaurant…every city has one, so it’s familiar to viewers. Would you rather have had the joke’s punchline have been “He was at an anonymous, nameless restaurant, blowing on his soup”?

    The Taco Bell thing, come on, the Taco Bell dog was a cultural icon, an icon people closely associated with chihuahuas, I really don’t think Letterman’s people specifically brought that dog out there so Dave could mention Taco Bell.

    As for Simon Baker and the K-Mart and Mars Bar mentions…I don’t know if you eve listen to how people talk, but everyday conversation is loaded with corporate mentions. Again, hate it as you may, but we live in a culture that is loaded and colored by companies, so much so that they and their products enter our common vernacular in conversation.

    So, are there a lot of mentions of corporations in Letterman’s show? Yes. Are they all put there intentionally, to gain advertising revenue? I really don’t think so.

  2. Harold: Funny you should mention Conan. Check out the latest “corporate shill” clip.

    Sean May: Don’t you find it even remotely suspicious that Simon Baker would mention the exact same company that was prominently advertised? Guests on late night shows go through pre-interviews, where they are briefed on the stories and topics that they will be talking about. That way, someone on the product placement end can then figure out a way to get a product mentioned during the program.

    For a more blatant Letterman plug of Taco Bell, which makes regular appearances, check out this clip (“And while you’re getting it, I’ll tell people at home that that contains ground beef, sour cream, lettuce, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, onions, hot sauce, and salsa wrapped in a tortilla. Man does that sound tasty.”)

  3. Seeing how the Mars Bar no longer exists in the United States (now called Snickers Almond) it really blows your theory that it was product placement forced upon a guest.

    The Mars Bar is available in the UK, but Americans probably recognize it as a Milky Way.

  4. DrMabuse: I would say the Taco Bell thing you posted in your second video is specious at best. The post date for the video, December 13, 2006 (presumably the day after the episode aired) lines up nicely with when Taco Bell had a scare over e.coli in their food, which happened in December 2006 as well ( for the source). Also notice how Letterman says Taco Bell’s new slogan is “Look Outside For The Ambulance”…hardly something Taco Bell would want being said by one of their “shills”. The bit is playing on the fact that this food scare was the #1 news story at the time.

    Also, I don’t know if you watched the whole video, but at the end of it, the guy who is doing the contest to eat the chalupa begins spraying blood all over the set. Again, do you really think this is something Taco Bell set up for advertising? First Letterman makes light of their cleanliness, then depicts that people who eat their food could get injured in some way? If someone at Taco Bell paid for this as advertising, they should have been fired, because it does the exact opposite of advertising, it’s “de-advertising”, really, augmenting the possible health concerns that people had about Taco Bell at the time.

    With Simon Baker and the Case of the Suspicious Mars Bar Mention, I’m sure you’ve heard of verisimilitude, and that’s exactly what’s going on here. If he said “My mom worked as a security guard at a department store, and once she watched people steal a candy bar.” the story is nebulous, taking place in a featureless department store with the shoplifters taking candy bars wrapped in white paper. It’s like Repo Man all of the sudden.

    But, when people mention brand names, the audience’s brains begin to click and fill in the details of the environment. If you say K-Mart, most people have been in a K-Mart, so they know the general layout and feel of the store. When you say Mars Bar (which, as previously mentioned, doesn’t exist in the US anymore), it’s easier for the audience to get a mental picture of the scene. Without verisimilitude, everything’s very sterile, sort of just floating out there in a cultureless void.

    Brands have become part of our DNA, for better or for worse, and we use them as shorthand to convey ideas, instead of having to explain every time you’re telling a story what exactly a Big Mac is, you just say Big Mac and roughly everybody in the same culture will know exactly what you’re talking about.

  5. Sean May: On my way out the door, but very simply, the marketing people merely want people to remember the name. It doesn’t necessarily matter HOW the name is remembered. To their mind, the public memory is fickle. 2007’s e.coli doesn’t matter if 2009’s sales and brand name recognition are through the roof.

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