Cars & TV: Arranged Marriages

It's no accident that Eva Longoria was driving an Aston Martin in a recent episode of "Desperate Housewives."  And it's no accident that the promotional ads for NBC's fall shows were filled with Mazda vehicles.  Getting cars on television shows isn't a new phenomenon -- the Chevrolet Corvette of the early Sixties TV class "Route 66" is just one example of this decades-old practice -- but these days the technique is being turned into a science and, far from keeping it secret, some car companies and their public relations counselors are crowing about their successes.

Why is the technique so hot these days?  Part of it is driven by technology and by Americans' frequently expressed desire to avoid advertising.  Once captive to ads within TV programs, many viewers now have tools that can make commercials all but disappear.  First, there is the remote control, a weapon that quickly comes into play when the football game or the sitcom stops for a break.  But the remote control and its accompanying phenomenon, channel-surfing, is old-tech in the light of TiVo and other digital video recording technologies.  With TiVo one can fast-forward through commercials at warp-speed (or watch bikini-strewn beer ads in languorous extreme slow motion.)  Further, viewers can watch when they want to watch rather than being slaves to network TV schedules.

While all of this is a boon to American TV watchers, it is scaring the double decaf cappuccinos out of network execs because the exact things that Americans are trying so assiduously to avoid watching are the exact things advertisers need Americans to watch to pay the freight for all the dramas, reality shows and comedies that fill the airwaves, the cables and the satellite dishes of the land.  Not to mention paying for those double decaf cappuccinos.

What to do about this?  Well, a partial solution to the networks' problem is what is being referred to in the industry by the code words "integrated content."  What this means is that advertisers are paying to have their products featured in TV programs themselves, not in the breaks that come between programming.  Extreme examples of this technique are the episodes of NBC's "The Apprentice" that featured the Pontiac Solstice and the Lamborghini Gallardo as the objects of the contestants' weekly assignments.  In the case of the Solstice, money ("promotional consideration") changed hands, the car got a big jolt of pre-introduction publicity on a top-rated show, and General Motors filled its Solstice order bank. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

But the practice isn't always that blatant.  This past summer NBC promos for "Earl" and other programs on its fall schedule included various Mazda vehicles.  The cars were never identified either in voiceover or on-screen but they were there and maybe, just maybe, they helped influence a sale or two. 

While most of these deals are under the radar, the practice is getting more visibility.  Rogers & Cowan, the entertainment marketing agency of record for the BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce brands in the United States, actually put out a press release touting the fact that "BMW Group has accelerated its entertainment presence as the 2005 fall TV line-up showcases the company's brands in many starring roles."

According to the release, the all-new BMW 3 Series recently appeared on ABC's "Alias" season premiere with Jennifer Garner and Michael Vartan; UPN's "All of Us" highlights the 6 Series Convertible with Duane Martin behind the wheel; NBC's "The West Wing" includes BMW motorcycles in the presidential motorcade; and upcoming episodes of CBS's "Ghost Whisperer" feature a MINI Cooper driven by Aisha Tyler.

In a town noted for its junkets, recently, the Rogers & Cowan team joined BMW representatives for a two-day studio tour showcasing BMW's vehicles and motorcycles. Hollywood decision-makers at Warner Bros., Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Raleigh Studios-Manhattan Beach saw firsthand the latest models, including the BMW 645Cic, 530i, 330i, MINI Cooper, K1200R motorcycle "and a sneak peak at the show-stopping M5."  Wow, I hope they all had their Zoloft with them.

So if you think your favorite TV character is driving a particular model because the writer who created the character specified it to help express what the character is all about, you might have to think again.  It might just be because the manufacturer of that car was the highest bidder.

So selling cars has taken yet another new turn.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

A frequent viewer of American TV via his satellite dish, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.