Bay's robots in disguise boost GM profile

Survey: 'Transformers' car characters more popular than film's stars

From the outset, GM was thrilled with the starring roles that director Michael Bay orchestrated for four of its vehicles in his summer blockbuster "Transformers" despite some media and blogger criticism that the integrations went too far and basically served as commercials for the carmaker.

Now with the release of market research data from GM on the impact of its placement in the film, it appears there was indeed little consumer backlash against the integrations, which were widely considered among the highest profile and most significant film roles for an auto manufacturer, or any advertiser, for that matter.

According to the market research, Autobot Bumblebee, who spent much of the film as a Chevy Camaro, was the film's favorite character, beating out real-life stars Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox and even Autobot leader Optimus Prime. Ninety-four% of moviegoers surveyed rated their opinion of Bumblebee as excellent or very good, compared with 91% for Optimus Prime, 83% for LeBeouf, 82% for Fox and 69% for Jazz, Ratchet and Ironhide -- played by a Pontiac Solstice, a Hummer H2 and a GMC Topkick, respectively, that transform into Autobots.

"This is one of those rare instances when our product was actually a key character in a movie," said Dino Bernacchi, associate director of marketing alliances and branded entertainment at GM. "When 94% of all moviegoers questioned said their favorite character in the film was Bumblebee, I think that just shows the power of what this movie was and what it did for us."

The data, compiled by an independent market research firm based on interviews with 1,350 U.S. moviegoers before and after seeing the film in theaters, demonstrated that respondents were 70%-90% more likely to consider purchasing the Camaro, Solstice, Hummer H2 and GMC Topkick after seeing "Transformers." And moviegoers' opinions of the GM vehicles also shot up drastically, with a 144% improvement in their opinions of the Solstice -- which has only been on the market since 2005 -- and a 72% improvement in audience views of the Camaro. Opinions of the Hummer H2 and the GMC Topkick improved by 65% or greater.

"Opinion and consideration (to purchase) are probably the two hardest metrics to move in the automotive category," Bernacchi said. "With a movie that isn't a hard-core selling of a product, those two measures are even harder to move. If we can move the needle for opinion and consideration, that's remarkable."

The market research, requested by The Hollywood Reporter, also found that 50% or more of moviegoers questioned were more likely to research the vehicles in the film, either by going online or visiting a dealership. GM also found significant increases in both the hip and cool factors for its vehicles.

According to GM, 92% of moviegoers said the Camaro was the right fit for the role of Bumblebee, 80% said the Hummer H2 was a good fit for Ratchet and 76% thought the Solstice and Topkick were the right choice for Jazz and Ironhide. Bernacchi said that regarding automotive integrations in films over the past five years, typically only 46%-62% of moviegoers have rated the vehicles as the right fit for the roles.

But despite the positive data, GM could not show a correlation between its starring roles and increased auto sales or Web traffic.

The Camaro in the film is a new model that won't be released until the end of 2008, the Topkick is a heavy duty vehicle that's not really a commercially viable alternative for consumers, and the Hummer H2 and Solstice are niche brands, Bernacchi said. In addition, it takes time for marketing campaigns to translate to automotive sales, with vehicles being the second biggest purchase Americans make outside of a home, he added.

GM sales were up 2.7% in August-October compared with the year-ago period, with 1,035,816 vehicles sold, but the increase couldn't be specifically correlated to the film. "There's infrequently that immediate translation to sales," Bernacchi said. But he noted that 180,000 people have registered for updates on the new Camaro compared with about 15,000 before the film was released.

The starring roles did help GM accomplish one of its most difficult tasks: improving its brand cachet, or hip factor, in the eyes of consumers. "We were able to showcase some of the sexiest, coolest products in this movie. Each of the vehicles is a halo product for its division. This property gave our company the chance to break through," Bernacchi said.

With record sales of the "Transformers" DVD -- released last month -- on the heels of a worldwide boxoffice tally of more than $700 million, the marketing benefits of the GM integrations are likely to become even greater. And what about "Transformers 2"? Bernacchi said he couldn't comment on any future deals but said that GM hoped to reprise its starring roles in the sequel.
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