Cars in the Movies

Whether it was the enduring success of the Bond Aston or merely corporate fascination with co-branding at any price, the practice has taken over. Not long ago, I was watching TV and saw an ad that I identified as being either for the Chrysler 300C or for the latest Harrison Ford stiffy, Firewall. It turns out the commercial was for both, replete with the requisite heavy Internet promotion component, including a three-tiered co-branding exercise: a contest with Moviefone to win a 300C.

Chrysler won't reveal what the Firewall placement cost them. General Motors will not even acknowledge putting the Pontiac Solstice into the upcoming Mission: Impossible III, although insiders peg the cost in the vicinity of $2 million. That's a lot of coin for something that, like most movies, will have at most a couple of good weeks in theaters before fizzling. Still, it's a lot less than the reported $12 million GM dumped placing the hapless Pontiac Aztek in television's Survivor. The show made it; the Aztek never did. Nor did GM's bizarre hookup with Warner Brothers cartoon characters much help its cars.

Before receiving his walking papers a few years ago, Chrysler marketing chief Jim Schroer paid $14 million for Celine Dion to lend a touch of class to the Chrysler Pacifica and Crossfire launches with her abominable new single and then $9 million to rockers Aerosmith for the quickly hatcheted "Mayor of Truckville" Dodge campaign. To complete the trifecta, the visionary executive also reneged on a deal to pay Martha Stewart several million as a Chrysler marketing partner when an untimely prison sentence intervened.

Yet despite all the multimillion-dollar missteps, co-branding and product placement roll ever onward, leaving enthusiasts only to wonder: What is it about carmakers that's made them so susceptible to the temptation of Hollywood and the rest of the world's image makers? Is their nineteenth-century industry so unsexy and are consumers so disinterested that automakers think they must trick them into thinking about their products? Is their self-esteem that low? Are their cars that boring? Have they drunk so much of the Kool-Aid that they no longer realize that so much co-branding is no branding at all?

At least Porsche didn't pay to be in Cars. Pixar came to them. Nowadays, that qualifies as enlightenment.

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