Currently reading: Movie star cars: How much is product placement worth to makers?
Cars in film and TV are of huge value to their makers, but what are the secrets of product placement? We find out

"I wonder how much they paid to have their car in that film.”

It’s a thought that often arises when a shiny new model is driven by a big-name actor. Surprisingly, the answer is almost always ‘nothing’, and it’s all down to the art of product placement and secrecy befitting a spy thriller. Back in the day, product placement of cars was more luck than data-derived judgement. 

Which makes you wonder: what if Sean Connery hadn’t used an Aston Martin DB5 in 1964’s Goldfinger or Steve McQueen hadn’t been at the wheel of a Ford Mustang chasing down a Dodge Charger in 1968’s Bullitt? We can only speculate what such appearances might have done for the growth of a brand or model.

Today, product placement is seriously sophisticated, and the strategy is so commercially sensitive that no manufacturer I spoke to would go on record about it.

One anonymous insider said 1960s tactics were very effective at the time, with viewing options limited to a few TV channels and cinema, but modern media is more fractured (mainly because of the internet), so getting value from product placement is more challenging.

Still, where there is the chance to immerse a brand in moments of cultural relevance that will stand the test of time, there is value. Indeed, product placement is increasing, and about a third of prop or product placements globally involve cars, even though direct sales value is hard to measure.

Some character and car associations are embedded: if you drive an Aston Martin, observers think James Bond; a Mustang with roll-neck-wearing driver sporting an expression of studied nonchalance means epic car chase and 100-yard open-diff burnouts unleashed by San Francisco cop Frank Bullitt.

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Those movies made us want those cars, or at least a test drive.

John Kellaway of product placement specialist Brand Infusion explains: “In 90%-plus of cases in TV, there’s no payment to the broadcaster or production company; it’s a free prop loan of a vehicle.

The production company gets cars worth maybe six figures for a prolonged period and in return the brand gets measurable on-screen coverage, and we put a value on it for clients.

“That’s the situation with the BBC: no guarantee of exposure, a free loan of the vehicle and no payments either way, although prop placement can be done across all platforms – ITV, Netflix, film.

“Product placement is an agreement between the production company and motor manufacturer. Not necessarily cash; it could be loaning cars for a year in return for product marketing around the release. A contract is drawn up between the brand owner and the production company or the broadcaster; there will be a certain level of coverage guaranteed.

“With films, it’s a misconception that there are big cash sums paid by car manufacturers to film makers. Vehicles are seen as payment in kind. So with Bond, for instance, Aston Martin provides cars for filming – some normally rigged, some 4x4-ed and some just shells.

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“Manufacturers will do some pre-release awareness-raising – whether print media, online, digital or heavily targeted towards the customer database – for three weeks before the movie release and several weeks afterwards.

“This often goes through a specialist agency like ours. We get the scripts, then go to clients and explain the opportunity. Manufacturers and production companies will sometimes deal directly, though.”

They consider the character, synopsis, target audience and release territories but ensure it avoids pitfalls like association with drink-driving.

“It’s in the film’s interest to ensure manufacturers exploit it as much as possible across all platforms,” adds Kellaway.

Consider, he says, the global communication might of the likes of BMW: promote the car, promote the movie.

Freelance ‘action vehicle co-ordinators’ (there are maybe a dozen of them in the UK) know the agencies and manufacturers and understand the detail of relevant car and placement.

One win arising from Kellaway’s deep understanding is Renault placing a car in the recent Netflix series Bodies. The car featured was the Scenic Vision, which at the time of production technically didn’t exist yet – but that didn’t get in the way.

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He says: “Bodies is split between 2023 and 2053. Production said they wanted a futuristic-looking vehicle for 2053 scenes. Renault had a Scenic Vision concept car – the only one in the world – and we got it onto Bodies. The coverage that car achieved was absolutely phenomenal.

“By contrast, we were approached by the producers of [2000s BBC TV series] Spooks. There was a scene where a drug lord captures one of the Spooks team, beats him up, puts him in the boot of a car, drives to a clifftop, takes his body out and throws him off.

"They named a specific high-end car they wanted. I just said there was simply no way: too much of a negative association between brand and killing a lead character.”

If it had instead been used for a school run or in a car chase, the seeds might have been there for a partnership to grow. 

Just how much is such product placement worth to car makers? Under interrogation, each stuck to the script with a variation of a classic movie cliché: they could tell us, but then they’d have to kill us.

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