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I've got your product placement right here.

A highly scientific poll conducted by calling my friend Doug and asking him, “Hey, who do you think has more screen time in Iron Man: Jeff Bridges or the Audi logo?” determined recently that, yeah, there might be some product placement at work in the entertainment industry.

Q7 Iron Man.jpg
The star of Iron Man. Also pictured: Guy in a robot suit.

Don’t get me wrong: Movie cars are awesome. You’ve got Christine, Herbie, Ecto-1, any number of Batmobiles…I could go on. But when did it go from “I think this character would drive a Corvette. Can we afford one?” to “We’ve been given a zillion dollars and a Corvette. Make this the kind of character who would drive that.”
I called up a colleague who will be denied attribution on the grounds that he said that, by answering my questions, he was doing my job for me. He said that, while regional distributors were loaning vehicles to studios as early as the 1930s, it was in the ‘50s that Chrysler put the full force of its brand behind a film exposure unit. Even then, most automotive product placement was a trade: I give you this fabulous new Chrysler, my fabulous new Chrysler gets to be in a movie. It wasn’t until Blade Runner, my source said, that filmmakers went to companies asking for money in exchange for screen time.
To sum up: It took 50 years to get from “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” to “Give me all your money.” Fast forward, and (discredited, but still half-believable) rumor has Ford paying an amount greater than the budget of the entire film to get the Mondeo in Casino Royale.

I never get the kind of rental car I request, either

Product placement’s risky. Sure, your vehicle shows up bigger than life in front of millions of people who’ve paid for the privilege of seeing it, but you don’t always have a lot of control over how it’s used. The Mondeo appeared as a “wah, wah wah” kind of punchline when we were expecting to see James Bond in something a little more not a Mondeo. And even though Audi put the kibosh on Iron Man’s plans to set fire to an R8 (I wonder what might have prompted that.), they couldn’t have been too happy about the scene that showed a woman scrabbling for a Q7’s brake pedal and hitting the accelerator instead.
So tell me, what’s your favorite bit of automotive product placement? Got a favorite movie car? Which companies should have paid to keep their brands out of which movies? (I’m thinking of GM and Demolition Man. Holy cow, that movie made $58 million in 1993 dollars? What was wrong with us?)

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