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Cars on the silver screen: from blockbuster to brand builder

Product placement in films has become an art form in its own right, and one of the most prominent and enduring examples of this practice can be found in the world of automotive. Over the course of history, cars have played a pivotal role in cinema, not only in shaping the narrative of films but in garnering international recognition for both the featured car brands and the movies themselves.

The connection of cars in cinematic storytelling has evolved into a mutual relationship, as car marques and specific models can significantly influence a film’s global visibility and reach. In this blog, we’ll explore some key cars that have graced the silver screen, the importance of product placement of cars in movies and its role in enhancing recognition for both the automotive industry and the box office.

The concept of using cars as a promotional tool in movies dates back to the early days of cinema. In the early 1900s, automakers recognised the potential of featuring their vehicles in films as a means of reaching a wider and captive audience, and one of the earliest known instances of car product placement can be traced to 1927 when the Ford Motor Company (today more commonly known as Ford) paid for its Model T to appear in the silent film Wings – the only film from the silent era to ever win the Academy Award for best picture.

However, it was the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger that truly solidified the relationship between cars and cinema. Featuring the iconic Aston Martin DB5, complete with gadgets like machine guns and an ejector seat, it now means we will forever associate the car with the suave spy and it established a precedent for future automotive product placements. The iconic DB5 has now made nine total appearances with various James Bond actors, and we can safely say that it’s more of a partnership than a product placement initiative today. Whether this relationship will continue as the franchise continues to evolve remains to be seen, however, this long list of appearances has certainly made the car synonymous with 007 and has helped build the representation and reputation of Aston Martin to audiences all around the globe.

This next product placement example transports us to a futuristic world depicted in movies released in the past, and during the early 2000s, the science fiction genre experienced a golden age of filmmaking. Movies like The Matrix, Minority Report, and The Chronicles of Riddick captivated sci-fi enthusiasts, drawing them to the theatres, and in the 2004 film I, Robot, starring the iconic Will Smith, the spotlight wasn’t just on the actor but also on the Audi RSQ, an advanced technological car featured in the futuristic vision of Chicago in 2035.

The mid-engined concept car was the first car Audi developed for the movie and provided the brand with the perfect opportunity to be seen on the big screen. One challenge arose, however, and that was making the concept design look futuristic, but also recognisable as an Audi model to the audience. By giving the front a single-panel grille, and further showcasing its iconic four-ring logo, Audi managed to show off its recognisable design philosophy, while creating a car set far into the future. For an even more enhanced and futuristic look, spheres replaced wheels to show the car could move multi-directionally and added a memorable image for this now-famous sci-fi car.

Putting General Motors on the map, and boasting an extensive showcase of iconic cars, director Michael Bay released Transformers in the summer of 2007, a film that sent waves of excitement ripping through both young audiences and automotive enthusiasts alike. Amidst a star-studded cast, it was the Chevrolet Camaro that undeniably stole the limelight. Transformers prominently featured two iterations of this iconic vehicle: the 1977 second-generation model at the film’s inception and the cutting-edge 2009 fifth-generation Camaro. Notably, for the inaugural film, Michael Bay sought permission from General Motors to employ the concept version of the fifth-generation Camaro, a vehicle that had not yet graced the public market, in bringing the beloved character Bumblebee to life. Transformers also featured several vehicle models from other brands including Audi, GMC, and Pontiac to name a few.

Making its theatrical debut in 2015, and transporting audiences back to the iconic Jurassic Park universe, Jurassic World strategically positioned Mercedes-Benz at the heart of its cinematic landscape. Taking centre stage in the revived adaptations of the much-loved film franchise, the GLE Coupé, G-Class and the formidable G63 AMG 6X6 successfully conquered the challenging terrain of the newly established dinosaur-themed park, ensuring audiences worldwide were aware of the range of products on offer from Mercedes-Benz, and its various and respective capabilities. This marked a notable departure from the original films of the 1990s, where Jeep had been the undisputed product placement star, effectively redefining the car’s off-roading prowess while showcasing its remarkable speed – capable of outrunning even a fearsome T-Rex!

For Mercedes-Benz, Jurassic World presented a golden opportunity to exhibit its dual strengths in both luxury and practicality, emphasising its versatility and adaptability in diverse environments. This strategic move allowed the brand to align itself with the enduring legacy of the Jurassic Park franchise, leaving an indelible mark on both the world of cinema and automotive enthusiasts alike.

For ardent fans of both Marvel and Lexus, a memorable product placement moment presented itself in 2018, when Black Panther not only dominated the box office with earnings exceeding a staggering $1.3 billion but also treated audiences to an exhilarating car chase set amidst the bustling streets of Busan, Korea. At the heart of this pulse-pounding sequence was the deep blue Lexus LC 500, uniquely customised for its role in the film. Here, the Black Panther himself commandeers this striking vehicle, perched daringly on its roof as he relentlessly pursues the film’s cunning villain. This high-octane chase scene is a masterclass in product placement, meticulously choreographing the Lexus through sharp, hairpin turns and capturing the all-important frontal shots that accentuate the distinctive grille shape adorned with the iconic Lexus logo.

Regrettably, the coupe meets a fiery demise before the chase’s conclusion, reduced to a spectacular explosion. Nevertheless, the LC 500‘s performance leaves an indelible impression, as this strategic partnership not only reinforces the synergy between Marvel‘s cinematic universe and Lexus‘s luxurious appeal but also underscores the effectiveness of such collaborations in elevating brand visibility and desirability. It’s a shining example of how a well-executed product placement can not only enhance a film but also leave an enduring impression on consumers, further solidifying Lexus‘ reputation for sophistication and performance.

As is evident from this blog post – which, by the way, barely scratches the surface of the connection between Hollywood and the automotive industry – cars have played an integral role in the world of cinema for over a century, serving as both plot devices and powerful marketing tools for automakers. The strategic placement of cars in films has become an effective way to reach diverse and captive audiences while enhancing the authenticity and emotional resonance of the storytelling. As long as filmmakers continue to weave cars seamlessly into their narratives, we can expect this partnership between the entertainment and automotive industries to continue driving success on and off the silver screen.

As film buffs ourselves, we here at HBPR have a passion for all things automotive and love seeing cars on big screens and on the roads around us. From restomods to classic cars, automotive launch events or a new rebranding strategy, we love working on projects of any kind, ensuring the motoring content we create is memorable and meaningful. If you have any questions or are looking for automotive PR-based insight and input, drop us a line at hannah@hannahburgesspr.com. Our door is always open.

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