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Obnoxious Product Placement: General Motors "Transforms" Image


The automaker wins a starring role in a summer blockbuster.


2007's Transformers redefined celluloid customer-baiting by breathing life into once- inanimate cars and trucks. Of course, the blockbuster was just sticking to the source material, which in 1984 set into motion the sexiest product placement opportunity in the history of the movies.

It just took a while to realize it.

And it's not totally surprising why. When the cartoon debuted in 1984, it didn't make a lot of noise about model or make. Sure, when the alien robots were in car mode their silhouettes looked like vehicles we knew, but with a few notable exceptions they were at best based on the cars our parent's wished they drove.

For proof, check out some of the shoddier entries from the toy line and you might be embarrassed that, even as a 6-year-old, you thought that hi-fi boom box actually looked like a hi-fi boom box. Alarmingly, the most realistic Transformer is Megatron, who morphs into a handgun so detailed I swear you could stick up a bank with it.

obnoxious It's no surprise, then, that it took more than a decade for the right people to realize the possibilities inherent in adapting the popular franchise to big-screen greatness. That and the abject failure of Gobots; had this poor man's Transformers taken off, it could very well have saturated -- and killed -- the entire shape-shifting robot market.

Prompted by a generation of man-children with a proven appetite for breakfast cereal and nostalgia -- and the existence of sufficiently mind-blowing special effects -- the franchise was finally rebooted in 2007 as a live-action blockbuster, where the models and makes took center stage. The opportunity to endear their product line to millions of moviegoers was, predictably, too much to resist for the right car company.

As it turned out, that car company was General Motors (GM). Transformers director Michael Bay had a peculiar fondness for its cars, having used them in several movies. (Who knows? Maybe their inelegant lines are a complement to his heavy-handed filmmaking.) After falling for the 2009 Chevrolet Camaro concept car, which won a star-making turn as Bumblebee, a fan favorite since back in the day, he called on the automaker.

GM was happy to oblige, supplying the film with 65 cars. The screen time was huge and the cars were central to the story - dare I say even more so than in 2005's Herbie Fully Loaded.

The response by moviegoers had to be a source of pride for GM: Two of audiences' 4 favorite characters were GM products, edging out the living, breathing Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox.

What's less clear is if the film and the marketing campaign that accompanied it -- everything from a "Transform Your Ride Event" to two Transformer-themed GM websites -- translated into actual sales. The company's participating in the summer 2009 sequel, which, at least anecdotally, suggests it didn't hurt.

Still, one's left to wonder if GM, whose best chance for survival looks increasingly like a federally-funded merger with Chrysler, wishes it could recoup the cost of those 65 cars.

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