Is Transformers movie a car ad in disguise?

The Hollywood tradition of product placement will soar to a new level when the Steven Spielberg-produced action film Transformers is unleashed on United States cinema-goers this week.

Based on the successful line of toys launched during the 1980s that spawned a popular cartoon series and several comic books, the new movie version of Transformers has become one of the most-talked-about films in years.

But while film buffs marvel at the spectacular, computer-generated pyrotechnics, US automaker General Motors (GM) is hoping that big box office will translate into big car sales.

Four GM models have prominent roles in the film, which sees them ”transform” from cars into robot warriors battling to save planet Earth from destruction by evil rival robots.

The GM vehicles, which unsurprisingly feature in the film as the good guys on the side of mankind, have featured prominently pre-release publicity for the film, which lands in US cinemas on Monday.

Dino Bernacchi, associate director of marketing alliances and branded entertainment at GM, said Transformers represents a rare convergence of big business and Hollywood.

”We try to find properties where the cars are the stars, and literally our cars are the stars of this movie,” Bernacchi told the Hollywood Reporter. ”You don’t get any more heroic than the roles that our four vehicles play.”

The car-robot given pride of place in the film, a Chevrolet Camaro, went out of production in 2002 but is set to be relaunched in 2008. Alongside the Camaro is a gas-guzzling Hummer H2, a super-sized GMC Topkick pick-up truck and a low-cost Pontiac Solstice convertible.

”I think this is a once-in-a-motion-picture-history-type opportunity for an automotive company where you have a film that actually incorporates multiple cars that are actually characters in the film,” LeeAnne Stables, senior vice-president of worldwide marketing partnerships at Paramount studios, told the Hollywood Reporter.

According to movie-industry press reports, GM did not pay for the right to feature in Transformers, but instead has helped offset the huge promotional costs of the film by featuring the movie in ad campaigns for its cars.

In exchange, Transformers director Michael Bay (Armageddon, The Rock and Bad Boys) has directed five separated commercials for GM.

Park Choong-Whan, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, described GM’s Transformers tie-in as ”probably the most aggressive form of product placement strategy”.

”This alliance can become a truly innovative and effective formable promotion,” Park said. ”If and when the main characters in the Transformers movies are truly meaningful, and surprising, and emotional then I think this type of promotion can still produce very strong effects.”

But Park warned that the campaign could backfire. ”People may discount the true effect that may be possible from this tie-in because they already know about it,” he said. ”There’s is a kind of boomerang effect … If prior attitudes of the people towards General Motors are negative, then it may not have a strong impact at all.” — Sapa-AFP

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