How Hollywood Sells the Electric Car

 

GM and Nissan released the Volt and the Leaf last January -- slowly at first, in a handful of high-density markets with limited availability. They promoted the cars to early adopters through social media. And much of their best hype came free: Motor Trend, for instance.  "A car of the future that you can drive today," it said of the Volt.  It all appears to be working, Shad Balch, a GM spokesperson on environmental and economic affairs, says: "We have sold every Volt that we built."  Initially, GM planned to make 10,000 Volts in the 2011 model year, but it recently decided to increase that by 4,000.  A quarter of those sold have gone to Southern California.

Now, as the number of available cars increase, so will their visibility.  Product placement for the Leaf will be part of the second phase of its release, when more cars are available," Sproule says. "It will include not only movies and television but also video games -- whose demographics are skewing older. The Atari generation has grown up."

And the Tesla Roadster has made many recent TV and film appearances thanks to entertainment insiders who admire it. With a price of $110,000, the Roadster is not for everybody. Its share of the total market -- with about 1,700 cars sold -- would be a "rounding error at GM," jokes Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning car columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Yet Hollywood has used the car to show that wealth and social responsibility need not be incompatible. In late 2008, when average citizens began to learn the extent of Wall Street's misdeeds, TNT launched a new television series: Leverage, about a team of latter-day Robin Hoods who exact revenge on  unprincipled fat cats. The team's leader, played by Timothy Hutton, drives a Tesla.

Dean Devlin, who created the show, owns a Tesla and is a friend of Paine. They both put down deposits on the cars after Paine finished Who Killed?  "Dean dared me to," Paine says. "He told me, 'We made the movie; let's walk the walk.' " (As with the Tesla, Paine paid full retail for his Volt, selling his non-plug-in Prius to help pay for it. He plans to trade his third car -- a 2002 Toyota Rav4 EV -- for a $32,780 Leaf.)

In director Jon Favreau's Iron Man movies, humanitarian-industrialist Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., has values similar to those of Hutton in Leverage. He also has a Tesla -- though because Audi was a sponsor of the movie, he is shown behind the wheel of an under-20 mpg Audi R8 5.2 Spyder. Unlike Devlin, Favreau is not a Tesla owner, but this hasn't stopped him from promoting the car. He invited Tesla CEO Musk to portray himself at a fancy party in Iron Man 2.

Coda Automotive, a new electric vehicle manufacturer, will open its first store this month in Century City. "We chose the location due to its proximity to Hollywood influencers -- entertainment industry execs, celebrities, writers, directors, etc. -- who have the means and interest to promote new transportation modes," says Coda spokesperson Larkin Hill.

Celebrity endorsements can, of course, boomerang. "There is a lot of pushback in the heartland against celebrities doing things to pump up electric mobility," Neil says. "These cars can be expensive and very elitist. You don't see electric pickup trucks. Many people despise the Prius as the official car of limousine liberals."

The pushback is not confined to middle America. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker lampooned the Prius in an episode in which dozens of the cars were crushed -- to ward off an epidemic of smugness. The Prius also has figured in Showtime's Weeds. The show's lead character, played by Mary-Louise Parker, consorts with drug lords, but she can still feel good about herself because she drives a Prius.

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In this ongoing dance between Detroit and Hollywood, one cannot always tell who leads and who follows. Harley Earl, GM's legendary car designer who invented both the look of streamline and the idea of "dynamic obsolescence," grew up in Hollywood. But Detroit stole him away -- then shipped his creations back to be featured in movies and on television. Since the 1980s, both Japan and Detroit have maintained design studios in Southern California, recognizing the region's importance in gauging and shaping popular taste.

There's nothing new about automotive product placement, either. In 1920, producer-actress Nell Shipman pioneered the integration of a car into a movie, a silent Western with the apt title Something New. Through terrain that would challenge a modern SUV, the cowboy hero and his gal escape desperados on horseback in a Maxwell sedan. And even before cars made it into movies, automakers commissioned songs to plug their wares. "At the turn of the century, the parlor piano was the TV set," says Arthur Einstein, a marketing communications consultant and former president of Lord Einstein O'Neill. People would gather round and sing what were essentially jingles, such as Edwards and Bryan's 1905 classic "In My Merry Oldsmobile."

As television evolved, so too did product placement. From 1960 to 1964, CBS broadcast Route 66, a hit show about two men and a Corvette. By the 1970s and early '80s, the cars on some shows had become as important as the human actors. The Dukes of Hazzard was as much about the General Lee -- a 1969 Dodge Charger -- as any of its people. Likewise, the gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit that James Garner drove in The Rockford Files was more a sidekick than a car.

The new iteration of '70s show Hawaii Five-0 revives the era's clever product placement. In the old version, lead detective Steve McGarrett, played by Jack Lord, drove a variety of Mercury cop cars. In the new one, sponsored by Chevrolet, McGarrett drives a Silverado pickup. And in a recent episode, the Five-0 team caught a bad guy through the OnStar system in a Chevy Malibu. This tight integration of GM products is far from accidental. Before committing to the show, "We sat down with the writers to figure out what the characters were all about and what vehicles suited them," says Istvan Tihanyi, GM's general director of marketing alliances, services and branded entertainment. 

This kind of marketing can be tricky. "Product placement works best when it meshes with the script -- when, for example, some aspect of the car is essential to the plot," explains Jason Vines, a senior vp at PR firm Fleishman-Hillard and an auto-industry communications veteran. (The integration of the Camaro in Dark of the Moon is a perfect example of seamlessness. ) "If the product sticks out -- if people notice it for the wrong reasons -- the placement won't work." GLAAD drew national attention to the offensive line from The Dilemma, but to people with impaired vision, another aspect of the film also might be offensive. It pokes fun at a problem Nissan took seriously: the danger that silent electric cars pose to sightless pedestrians. In consultation with medical advisers and advocacy groups, Nissan created a whirring noise for its Leaf that has a movie precedent -- the drone emitted by the cars in Woody Allen's 1973 movie Sleeper. (Nissan has not acknowledged the similarity, but YouTube posters have had a field day juxtaposing clips of the vehicles.)

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To make inroads in the heartland, Neil says, electric cars need an anti-celebrity pitchman: "Mike Rowe, for instance, the down-to-earth host of cable's Dirty Jobs. Rowe has been a longtime spokesman for Ford, and if he drove a Fusion Hybrid or a Hybrid Eclipse, the cars might achieve market penetration."

The best pitchmen, though, might be the carmaking subjects of Paine's movie -- they exude a selling masculinity. They are bold men who court risk -- some more theatrically than others. Musk exposes the most of himself -- opening his home to Paine and discussing his untidy recent divorce. "Musk seems more comfortable with risk than the people around him," Paine says. Ghosn, in contrast, deflects attention from himself and focuses it on Nissan. "The title isn't Revenge of Carlos Ghosn," he dryly observes.

But in GM's Lutz, Paine seems to have found his Red State alter-ego -- committed to what Paine calls the "re-sexification of the American car" and equipped with the salesmanship to achieve this. "He could charm the skin off a snake," Neil says.

Lutz has written a book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, timed to coincide with the film. In it, he explores the myth of the American car and situates the electric car within that myth -- not because the car is green but because it is patriotic. "Our energy supply is in the hands of a few unstable people who don't like us," he says. The electric car "can free us."              

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