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Seamless & Subtle: The Art of Automotive Ad Placement

Seamless & Subtle: The Art of Automotive Ad Placement
Eric Huebner

“Bond. James Bond.” These iconic words have identified the world’s most famous secret agent to a host of villains, exotic women and movie fans for 50 years. Anyone can give you a perfect description of the man who speaks them: tall, debonair, drinking a martini and sitting with a relaxed arrogance behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB5. James Bond doesn’t simply drive an Aston — he embodies the entire brand. When automotive product placement is done properly, this perfect fusion is the result. However, for every seamless, evocative placement, there’s a cringe-worthy counterpoint.

When it comes to product placement, subtlety is key, and when one thinks of Michael Bay’s recent Transformers trilogy, “subtlety” is not the word that springs to mind. Transformers features one of the most obvious instances of product placement in recent memory, featuring GM cars and trucks in such detail that one AP reporter went so far as to describe the film simply as a “GM ad in disguise.”

A pre-production model of the then-unreleased Chevy Camaro defended the main character from evil transforming robots, conveniently disguised as tuned Ford Mustangs and other segment competitors. Dino Bernacchi, GM’s associate director of branded entertainment, remarked in an AP interview that, “You’re going to see these cars as the heroes. You’re not going to see the other actors. These cars are the stars, literally, in the movie.” Many viewers found that this was the case and ultimately panned the film for ignoring things like plot development for the sake of close-ups of the Camaro.

Films aren’t the only place where bad automotive placement can occur. AMC’s The Walking Dead has dominated television to such a degree that its season three finale episode was ranked as the most-watched cable telecast of all time. Slightly less impressive is the way the producers cram Hyundai cars into the show. This presents another avenue for product placement to go awry. If the placement of the product is incredibly illogical, viewers will immediately reject it, as is the case with The Walking Dead. Viewers and critics alike have questioned the practicality of a Hyundai Tucson, originally marketed as a midrange urban crossover, being used as a getaway car in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland, as well as the car’s curious ability to repel all traces of dirt and blood during the notoriously gory episodes. Not to mention that the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead supposedly takes place in 2010 and the car is a 2013 Hyundai Tucson.

In an increasingly digital market, automotive companies have to consider the diffuse impact of advertising. Forty-four percent of American consumers operate DVR systems, allowing them to skip over traditional visual advertisements when viewing at home. As such, companies have recently turned away from traditional product placement and have adopted social media strategies in order to continue to reach a broad audience. A recent Nielsen/McKinsey study showed that up to fifty-five percent of Asian consumers looking to purchase a car in 2013 would be influenced by social media.

This, conversely, is where Hyundai and The Walking Dead have excelled. To celebrate the success of the show and the longevity of the comic series it was based on, Hyundai created a one-off Elantra coupe designed specifically to survive a zombie apocalypse. The car came complete with spiked wheels, high-powered spotlights, a reinforced cage, enormous plow, and a handy escape hatch. The Elantra “ZE” was unveiled in the summer of 2012 and gave a massive publicity boost to Hyundai as the show increased in popularity.

When automotive product placement is done properly, it transcends simple advertising. Brilliant placement isn’t always flashy or extreme, but is often focused on the part the product can play. Good automotive placement ensures that these cars take on a life of their own. Aston Martin stopped producing the DB5 in 1965, but just like its driver, it will forever be a cultural icon. There’s a reason the producers of Skyfall, the film that marked Bond’s fiftieth birthday, gave the DB5 so much screen time. The world fell in love with it.


[Sources: dwinQ, NBC News, AutoBlog, Tampa Bay Times]

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