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Automobiles and their placement in movies: Good for the image? news
28 December 2007

Always a tricky question for an automobile manufacturer - whether to place the car in a movie, or not - considering there is nothing to help them decide whether it would add to or subtract from the brand image of the product. Sourya Biswas evaluates the pros and cons of brand or product placements in the movies.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, the only advertisements the citizens saw at the movies were the irritating beauty-parlour commercials featuring not-so-beautiful women, and those plugging jewellery that were in fashion during the Mughals, illuminating the premises before the film started.

Not any more.

Cut to the present day, and you see actors wearing branded clothes, eating at branded restaurants, and even wash their clothes with branded detergents (reference: A kitchen scene in the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Krrish). And then, they drive their branded vehicles.

But for the saving grace of beautiful automobiles being productively placed as product placements, this disgraceful practice of rich studios accepting money from richer companies to promote their products independent of the movie's storylines would have been even more offensive.

This is not an endorsement of the practice of product placements, but merely stating that the presence of a branded vehicle in a movie is not so much visually jarring and mentally scarring as say, a branded detergent or a branded film star talking about his branded shoes (reference: Will Smith in I-Robot advertising his Concourse sneakers).

Not all product placements featuring automobiles have been solely for commercial and ornamental purposes. Surprisingly, some of them do manage to become an integral part of the stories they feature in. Of course, that maybe just a better advertising brain at work, but is certainly not unwelcome.

Take the aforementioned movie I-Robot (2004) for example. Notwithstanding Will Smith's footwear folly, one thing that would have certainly impressed the viewer is the cool car that he drives in the movie. And the viewer would not have missed the prominent ''four rings of quality'' emblazoned on the vehicle, distinctly marking it out as an Audi.

Audi RSQ

Now, this opens up a whole new chapter in product placement. That is because this car, the futuristic Audi RSQ was exclusively developed for this movie, and even incorporated inputs from the film's director Alex Proyas.

This car runs not on wheels, but spheres. So you won't be buying it at your neighbourhood showroom anytime soon. In spite of that fact, Audi Design made a considerable effort to come up with this dream vehicle of 2035, and got a lot of positive publicity in the bargain.

Audi RSQ

Of course, Audi, like other major manufacturers, had been placing its products in many major movies over the years - Ronin with Jean Reno and Robert de Niro (1998), The Insider (1999) featuring Russell Crowe, Mission Impossible II (starring Tom Cruise, 2000), The Mothman Prophecies (starring Richard Gere, 2002), About a Boy (starring Hugh Grant, 2002) and Reese Witherspoon's Legally Blonde 2 (2003). However, with the RSQ, automobile product placement begins a new journey altogether.

This practice is not new, but only recently has it got so big. Rewind back to those romantic black and white days of Roman Holiday (1953) when Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck embarked on a scooter ride through the bylanes of Rome in one of the film's most memorable sequences. That introduced Vespa as a brand to the American public, and may very well have been one of the earliest product placements in motion-picture history.

Another instance of early product placement was in the 1966 film The Graduate, where a young Dustin Hoffman drives a red Alfa Romeo Spider 1600 "Duetto". The Graduate gave rise to the Spider's fame and longevity, to the point that Alfa Romeo marketed the car in the States as the 'Alfa Graduate'. The film portrays a number of Alfa traits accurately, such as the signature noisy-valved 'Alfa Rasp', and in particular the famously non-functional fuel gauge which leaves the hero in the lurch at a critical moment.

Alfa Romeo Spider in The Graduate

If we are talking of iconic cars in movies, how can we not mention the James Bond series? The first two movies, Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963), featured unspectacular production cars hardly worth mentioning, except for the brief appearance of a Bentley Sports Tourer, incidentally, author Ian Fleming's favourite. However, the third movie Goldfinger (1964) featured a car that made an English automobile manufacturer world-famous the Aston Martin DB5.

When Ian Fleming's novel Goldfinger was published in 1959, he provided James Bond with an Aston Martin for the first time. Prior to that, Bond had been driving Bentleys. The movie, and the vehicle, proved so popular that the DB5 featured in several other Bond flicks, even the more modern ones like GoldenEye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

Aston Martin DB5

In addition, there have been numerous other memorable Bond vehicles, all paid for handsomely by the manufacturers to be featured alongside the suave secret agent. These include the rocket-shooting BSA Lightning motorcycle in Thunderball (1965), the Lotus Esprit that could change into a submarine, in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the laser-firing Aston Martin V8 Vantage in The Living Daylights (1987), and the cell phone-controlled BMW Z3 in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

After using BMW for the first three Pierce Brosnan movies, James Bond returned to his British roots with the Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day (2002), and continues this association with the Aston Martin DBS in Casino Royale (2006).

Aston Martin DBS

Nowadays, product placement often means the exclusive presence of only one brand of automobiles in a film or TV series. Examples of this practice include Bad Boys 2 (2003), in which almost every featured car was made by General Motors (besides the Ferrari driven during the chase scene), and the series Desperate Housewives where three of the characters drive Nissans. The X-Files had only Fords, as do the main characters in the latest thriller series 24. In The Matrix Reloaded (2003), the key chase sequence was between two Cadillacs a CTS and an Escalade EXT.

All this while we have been discussing automobile product placements in Hollywood, but have not yet touched upon that subject with regard to the largest film industry, by number of productions, right here in India. It's not that Indians are ignorant to the phenomenon of product placement, but this culture has become ubiquitous only recently.

It may surprise many to be informed that the earliest product placement in an Indian film was a yellow Rajdoot motorcycle in that defining teen-romance Bobby (1973). So it seems that the game had started quite a long time back, only the players were lacking. Moving slightly away from powered vehicles, we can look at the defining leading role that the BSA SLR bicycle played in the movie Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992).

Bollywood may have started slowly, but now seems to be in a hurry to catch up. Remember India's first so-called ''road'' movie, aptly titled Road  (2002)? Tata Motors reportedly paid one crore rupees to have the Tata Safari as an integral part of the film. This was definitely a deviation for a company that till then did not believe in brand promotion of this sort. Maruti Udyog inked its first product placement deal when it debuted its much-awaited Maruti Swift in the Abhishek Bachhan-Rani Mukherjee starrer Bunty Aur Babli (2005), where the protagonists playing confidence tricksters use the car as their getaway vehicle.

However, none of them was as prominent as another potboiler from the Yashraj stable Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007). With a storyline woven around the hero's career as a NASCAR racer, the movie provided ample opportunities for General Motors, lubricant-manufacturer Castrol, and tyre-maker Goodyear to showcase their products. Although the movie featured racecars like the Chevrolet Corvette, it also plugs the Aveo that is the recent GM entrant on Indian roads.

The advertising campaigns and assorted merchandising underlined this association repeatedly, with the stars of the movie Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee themselves being brand ambassadors of the Chevrolet Aveo.

A publicity poster of the film Ta Ra Rum Pum

The current crop of Bollywood heroes ensures that any brand that they endorse also find an honourable mention in their films. That is why many Shah Rukh Khan movies, irrespective of the country it is filmed in, feature the Hyundai Santro (refer Chalte Chalte).

Currently at $5 billion, the product placement industry is poised to double by 2010. With viewers switching channels whenever commercials come on air, advertisers seem to have a winning idea in hand with product placements, where the viewer has to watch whether he likes it or not. We can be sure that product placements have a very healthy and long life ahead, and that automobiles will continue to feature prominently in them. The saving grace would be great new vehicles that manufacturers will be lining up to build, and to make sure they look good on the big and small screens as well. For people like the designer of the Audi RSQ, may their tribe increase!

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Automobiles and their placement in movies: Good for the image?