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Product placement revenues hit $1.5Bln

You’re sitting there watching TV when a commercial comes on for the new 2005 Pizzazzmobile V8. As the narrator extols its styling, its power, and its luxurious interior you yawn and flip the channel. A few days later, however, you’re at the movies when Tom Cruise comes racing along a mountain road overlooking Monte Carlo in that very same Pizzazzmobile. Will you take this opportunity to get up and go buy a bag of popcorn? Not hardly! Somewhere deep within your cerebrum something is being planted. “Wow! I’d look great, too, at the wheel of a Pizzazzmobile.” There, in a nutshell, lies the appeal of the increasingly popular — and controversial — practice known as product placement.

In concept there is nothing mysterious or sinister about product placement. Basically it involves featuring a commercial product within an entertainment or artistic work, most often a movie or TV show. It’s nothing new, especially where cars are concerned. There was, for instance, James Bond’s Aston Martin in “Dr. No”; “Smokey and the Bandit” with Burt Reynold’s gleaming black Pontiac Trans Am; “Herbie, the Love Bug” and the eponymous VW Beetle; and the 1971 classic “Le Mans”, which featured Steve McQueen and a bevy of Porsches on the race track and on the road.

In recent years, however, produce placement has become big business. About $1.5 billion will be spent this year to place products — cars, candies, dishwashing liquid, and even some countries — in the 500 feature films released in the United States . Of that total, carmakers account for some $600 million. According to Autoweek, Ford spent $35 million to feature Jaguars and Thunderbirds in one movie alone, the 2002 James Bond shiller-thriller “Die Another Day.” Other carmakers routinely spend up to $10 million per movie for the privilege of seeing their models roll across the big screen.

The competition among carmakers for a prime movie spot can be heated. In the John Grisham book “The Firm”, for instance, Tom Cruise’s employer gives him a BMW 318 as a perk of employment with his new law firm. But in the movie, this becomes a Mercedes convertible. Mercedes denies having had to pay for such prime exposure; rather, they appealed to producer, Sydney Pollack’s sense of zeitgeist. “He became convinced BMW was the car of the 1980s, while the Mercedes was the car of the 1990s,” says a Mercedes spokesperson.

BMW had greater luck placing its Z3 roadster in the 1995 Bond flick “Golden Eye.” While this was a tremendous commercial success, it alienated Bond purists and Bimmer-philes alike, who agreed that while Bond would have been happy to drive the larger, more powerful M5 muscle car, he wouldn’t have stepped foot in the dinky Z3.

However coveted such exposure on the big screen there’s a fine line that separates the credible from the contrived and audiences are quick to make the distinction. “When placement is gratuitous or clumsy neither the product nor audiences nor the moviemakers are served,” says Martin Peters, Media Relations Manager for Porsche. “Porsche is known as a high performance car but we don’t seek out outlandish action stunts with Porsches flying through the air. From our standpoint the best placement shows our cars doing what they were built to do, in situations that flow naturally from the plot and character.”

Today, though Porsches are synonymous with power, speed, and sex appeal, the marque has avoided being type cast. In “Mission Impossible II”, it’s hard to imagine Tom Cruse at the wheel of anything less than a Boxster while racing through the mountains of Spain . Likewise, though Reese Witherspoon may first appear ditzy in “Legally Blonde”, she radiates future greatness when she arrives at Harvard Law School in a pink version of the same model. In Disney’s “The Kid”, Bruce Willis’ fastidious tastes are evident in his sprawling, ultra modern home and his sleek black Porsche 911. In “Hollow Man”, we know ueber-tekkie Kevin Bacon is going to push the envelope of scientific research by the way he handles his 911 coupe.

However disparate the characters, says Peters, each movie expresses a different aspect of the Porsche experience. “You have to be true to your brand. You can’t be all things to all people. It helps to have a director who understands cars.”

To say the least, that pretty much describes director David Ellis, the man behind some of movie-dom’s most thrilling high speed scenes in such action epics as

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