Cars in the Movies

“There’s no business like show business,” the old adage goes, and nowadays everybody, even the makers of some of the world’s most exclusive sports cars, wants in.

We were reminded of this discipline-bending cultural imperative recently when Porsche Cars transported, at its own expense, a bouncing deportment of automotive journalists from around the world to the Pixar studios in Emeryville, California, to attend what it called a “virtual car launch” but what was in fact an advance screening of the expected summer blockbuster-to-be, Cars.

We won’t be giving away too much of the plot when we tell you that a has a starring role in this latest computer-animated feature from the celebrated makers of Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

“As soon as we got the call, we knew it was a good fit for us,” Porsche’s North American PR general manager, Bernd Harling, a courtly Teuton, explained to his star-struck guests in an impossibly deluxe screening room at Pixar’s awesome place of business-an airy, purpose-built structure of exposed steel girders and giant glass panels. The size of several airplane hangars, the building houses nearly all of Pixar’s 850 employees in the way that signifies creative West Coast people at work: foosball tables at the ready, a cereal bar brimming with the foodstuffs of America’s youth, Italian espresso machines piping. It’s a formulaic expression of the letting-yourself-be-free-to-think-outside-the-box lifestyle, and it makes one pine for the days when keeping the creative types creative was the job of a well-stocked wet bar.

In so many ways, time has moved along. For most of automotive history, a fast and sexy sports car with a competition pedigree as long as Shaquille O’Neal’s arm would sell itself. But co-branding with the entertainment industry is the thing nowadays, and Porsche wasn’t about to let slide the call from Tinseltown North. “They got it instantly,” Cars director John Lasseter, a self-identified car geek who was kind enough to spend much of the day with the visiting Porsche delegation, enthused of the Zuffenhausen posse.

Cars tells a story of a world where all the people are cars (complete with teeth, lips, eyes, and tongues, which initially creeped me out), as well as the tale of one lonely stock car’s quest for greatness. Threaded throughout is a paean to Route 66, a chaste love story, and a poignant subplot about the crippling effect the interstate had on small-town America. Our hosts asked us not to critique the film, suggesting that we leave that job to the professionals, the movie critics. So, while we will note that Pixar once again pushes the computer-animation bus further down the road, we won’t assess the film’s artistic merit, even if we disagree about leaving movie criticism only to the professionals. I mean, I want to know what Roger Ebert has to say about the new Dodge Caliber at least as much as I want to know what he thinks about any film.

Suffice it to say, the Cars Porsche-a stylized version of a 2002 911-is a girl. Harling put this gender-specific casting decision in the best light, terming it a “politically correct move” that Porsche executives felt might boost sales to women, who currently make up less than ten percent of 911 buyers. Could be. For myself, I’d always thought of the 911 more as a virile and exceedingly athletic gay man. Casting their car as a woman-a burned-out L.A. attorney who has lost in love, no less-seems like a peculiar part for Porsche to accept so readily. Not that there’s anything wrong with women.

In fairness, Cars is hardly alone in reminding us how epidemic co-branding mania has become. More than forty years ago, Aston Martin initially refused to supply the producers of Goldfinger with a DB5, sniffily inviting them to pay list. Today, the fact that they ultimately worked a deal may be the single greatest factor explaining the brand’s enduring mystique and, indeed, its continued existence. However, it might be worth noting that James Bond’s DB5 was not a quasi-human girl car, but rather a rolling armory of lethal weapons.

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 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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