These are rough times for car companies. Executives from Detroit's Big Three are getting grilled on Capitol Hill. Folks are ignoring new cars in droves, and TV ads—well, they're sounding a bit desperate. So what's a car company to do? Hit the movies, that's what. Cars, of course, have had co-starring roles in movies since before the introduction of Technicolor. James Bond sped along European roads for years in his Aston Martin (or a BMW in later installments). Disney's (DIS) Love Bug starred, well, you know. And last year's megahit Transformers seemed to feature most of the General Motors (GM) lineup, including a bright yellow Camaro that converts itself into one of the robotic heroes.
The hot car in Hollywood, these days, is an Audi (NSUG), the German luxury car that, frankly, always seemed to sneak into lesser roles in movieland. No more. In the past few years, it's hard to go to your local multiplex without seeing that four-ring insignia staring back at you. In this spring's blockbuster Iron Man, the carmaker had three vehicles in starring roles, including the superhot Audi R8 speedster in which action star Tony Stark (aka Robert Downey Jr.) raced around town. And when the action film Transporter 3 opens on Nov. 26, car chase fans will get to see a nearly two-hour commercial for the Audi luxury sedan A8 as it outruns police, outmaneuvers a truck by riding on two wheels, and flies through the air to land on a speeding train—all without so much as losing a hubcap.
Product placement isn't exactly new in Hollywood, and Audi has been doing it for years. But you have to hand it to the automaker, which has gone into overdrive to go gear-shift to gear-shift with the likes of Ford (F), Mercedes, and better-known brands that for years have hogged much of the screen time. Audi has done its best to crash just about every awards party in town. (Disclosure: I was their guest at a post-Emmy party they hosted a month back and was chauffeured there in a decked-out A8). They have a fleet of sleek cars at the ready to lend to stars and directors. And they have turned loose their product placement agency for the last decade, the appropriately named Propaganda, which also shoehorns such clients as Nokia (NOK), Panasonic, and La Coste into scripts.
Hey, Look Me Over
"What we really needed was to get America talking, and that meant targeting Hollywood," says Scott Keogh, Audi's chief marketing officer. "It's about luxury and performance. People who know us get it. We needed more people to know us." Keogh is chatting with me at a cocktail party during the American Film Institute conference, the annual gathering of independent filmmakers and buyers for which Audi just happens to be a sponsor. Directors buzz by, sampling the booze and heading on to check out the sleek Audi parked next to the Roosevelt Hotel's pool.
It's all part of the Audi plan to target mega-events, especially as traditional media splinters and audiences dissipate. Earlier this year, the carmaker spent the requisite $2.7 million for a Godfather-spoofing Super Bowl spot, which shows a man waking up in his bed to find the sawed-off grille of a rival luxury car—and ends with the apparent perpetrator speeding off in an R8.
Rumors have always abounded that companies pay hefty sums to get their cell phones, soft drinks, computers, and cars onto the screen. I'm not going to tell you that it doesn't happen. Audi stresses that Hollywood's producers and directors just love their cars and points out that Transporter star Jason Statham is a frequent Audi guest at races where its cars participate. As for money changing hands, Audi steadfastly denies it pays for script time but acknowledges it will occasionally spend hefty amounts—let's just say $2 million or so—to help promote any flick with which it's associated. When Paramount (VIAB) rolled out Marvel's (MVL) flick Iron Man, Audi set up a Web site with original Iron Man content and promos. It ran promotions for its deals and commercials that featured the movie.
Cocoon for Kids
Did it work? Audi says it doesn't have those numbers, but it did get an added promo bonus when Iron Man director Jon Favreau told Conan O'Brian in a publicity appearance on the late-night show that he tried unsuccessfully to tip over Audi's Q7 SUV in one scene. "That's the family model," says Audi marketing head Keogh. "Does it get much better than a director telling moms how safe our car is?"
Of course, it also helps that the movie did north of $580 million in worldwide ticket sales and is this year's second-highest-grossing flick, at $318 million. Not all the movies are so big, to be sure. The company also provided its compact-size A3 to Sarah Jessica Parker for the film Smart People, which brought in a woeful $9.5 million. But as in everything Hollywood, there's always the next flick. The Transporter film ought to turn on some hard-core car fans. Down the road, what's next? Audi says it has secured a starring role for one of its cars in the next Transformers action film, which is schedule to be released in June. Take that, GM.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.