The Italian Job
Scene from The Italian Job. Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

It was a scenario I’d have hardly believed possible. I was dropping my 16-year-old off at school in one of my test cars and to my surprise, the sedan drew an enthusiastic chorus of oohs! and ahhhs! from the assembled kids. Quite a few of them strolled over for a
closer look and a couple of youngsters asked if they could sit inside for a moment.

The reception from the teenagers surprised me because I wasn’t driving a Ferrari, a Mercedes SL or a BMW Z8, but a fairly affordable and straightforward Cadillac CTS. Now I happen to like the CTS a lot, but it’s not exactly the kind of car you’d expect to set a teenager’s heart beating faster – or is it? The fact is, I wasn’t counting on the amazing effect vehicle placement in movies has on all kinds of audiences. It just happens that the CTS, along with other Cadillac products, was the automotive movie star of the blockbuster Matrix Reloaded, and the shrewd placement of the car won the interest of an audience who’d probably never taken a second look at a Cadillac of any kind.

Cadillac CTS
2004 Cadillac CTS. Click image to enlarge

For Cadillac, the exercise must have been deemed a huge success because GM’s luxury division has been trying for years to shed the “grandpa’s sedan” image the company laboured under for so many years. Cadillac has been working hard to attract a younger pool of buyers and now it has legions of young people who’ll be looking closely at this nameplate when the time comes for them to buy an upscale automobile.

Of course, there’s nothing new in using movies to promote vehicles of all kinds and the practice is almost as old as the film industry itself. Of course, years ago the producers were probably as happy as could be to get an automaker to supply vehicles free of charge for little more than a credit at the end of the picture. In recent years, the process has become a lot more sophisticated (read “expensive”) and auto manufacturers vie with one another to get their latest and greatest into a movie – even for a brief scene or two.

I just got around to watching the remake movie “The Italian Job,” which features a trio of new Mini Coopers plus one of the older 1960s vintage models that appears earlier in the film. The Minis

Continental GT
Bentley Continental GT. Click image to enlarge

get more screen time than some of the stars and Mini fans would probably say they earned it. The cars look really great and more than a few moviegoers must have headed to their banks for a loan the day after they saw the picture. I recently spoke to an auto industry executive involved with product placement and he told me that when they made the original Italian Job back in the 1960s, British Leyland, which built the Mini at the time, refused to cooperate and the producers were forced to buy more than 30 of the little cars. It’s hard to believe that BL couldn’t grasp the value of placing their products in the movie and perhaps this apathy was a foretaste of the disasters that were to befall the British auto industry in the years ahead. I think that if I had been producing that original Italian Job, I’d have headed straight for Fiat or Renault, but evidently the cars just had to be Minis.

Of course, few movie series have been as influential in the business of “placing” vehicles as the various James Bond films. These pictures have featured innumerable cars over the years, notably the various Aston Martin models. Serious students of 007 will remember, though, that Bond’s real car was a Bentley (finished in battleship grey) and the Aston only appeared in one of Ian Fleming’s books. For a while, BMW became Bond’s car of choice until (according to one industry insider) Ford bought out the contract and got Bond back into an Aston – the British automaker now being a division of Ford Motor Company. There’s talk now that Bond may

Die Another Day
Cars used in the James Bond film, Die Another Day included the Ford Thunderbird, Jaguar XKR and Aston Martin V12 Vanquish. Click image to enlarge

yet appear in a Bentley and the superb new Continental GT would be perfect for the supporting role. There was probably a time when the James Bond producers would round up appropriate vehicles and pay for them whether Lotus, Mustang or Ferrari, but those days have probably gone forever. I’m sure that marketers can calculate to the dollar just what value can be put on featuring cars in movies and the deals are cut accordingly. I was told by one auto industry executive, though, that his firm negotiated a Bond placement solely on cross-promotion between car manufacturer and movie and no money actually changed hands. Incidentally, Mercedes-Benz told me that its policy is never to pay for its products to appear in movies.

These days, the product placement business seems to have gotten completely out of hand with all kinds of brands appearing besides the various automobile nameplates. Computers, fast food outlets, beers, luxury goods and just about anything purchasable has been shrewdly showcased in movies. But as long as automobiles generate the excitement they do – on and off the screen – count on lots more new models making their debut on the silver screen before they arrive at the dealerships.

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