During this season of starlet-adorned award ceremonies, from the Golden Globes through to the Oscars, you will find a lot of car companies all vying to loan out their vehicles to any celebrity with a recognizable face who happens to be heading to a red-carpet award ceremony. There is, however, none so coordinated, consistent and aggressively playing the Fame Game as our friends at Audi.
Since the invention of the automobile, cars and stars have gone together like paparazzi and the Kardashians.
Since the invention of the automobile, cars and stars have gone together like paparazzi and the Kardashians, so by association getting a celeb behind the wheel of your car brand gives it an instant image boost that must make the car more attractive to buyers. Celebrity tales equals dealership sales. That's the logic, anyway. But surely the millions of dollars spent giving free cars to rich stars is a waste of precious and increasingly smaller marketing budgets. It's time to make the car the star, not the other way around.
Lets be clear, we are not talking about the very obvious dropping of famous faces into big budget ads. That has its place in the marketing toolbox, but in a very media savvy world it's clear most of us get that play-for-pay concept. Today, the use of just a famous name in an ad yields very little influence on whether you or I will buy that car. No, this awards-ceremony loaner deal is a subtler, but higher risk, idea that if you see a "star" with "their" car in "real life" then surely that adds to the car's appeal. We, the audience, are expected to start salivating like Pavlovian puppies in our desire to have same car in our own, less red-carpeted driveway.
There is no doubt that the publicity that comes with a well placed story, picture or feature can help raise awareness of a product – Oprah proved that with her "Favorite things" – especially if you are launching a line of wrinkle cream or juice bars. In a world of easily earned and very disposable celebrity, it works on FMCG (fast moving consumer goods), but I have my experience-driven doubts on its power to influence the second-biggest purchase we make in our lives. For brands like Audi, the focus should be paying more attention on polishing up its own image than latching onto someone else's 15 minutes.
So back to the main stage and our big award of the night. Audi seems to have taken the corporate star-loving to new levels of adoration. It has a fleet of A8s based in Hollywood, which it is rumored costs the boys and girls from Ingolstadt, Germany, around $2 million a year to run. Its sole purpose, it seems, is to shuttle any SAG-card-holding personality from glitzy A to glam B. Does this free ride influence the influencers when it comes to their own buying choices? Let me share a little secret tryst of mine as exhibit A in the case for the answer being no.
The focus should be paying more attention on polishing up its own image than latching onto someone else's fifteen minutes.
A few years ago I was on a flight from JFK to LAX and just as the door was about to be closed, on swept an airline-escorted film star, Brooke Shields. As fate would have it she found her pampered posterior on the seat next to mine. Had it not been for the spilling of a beverage (longer story), we wouldn't have shared a syllable let alone her tale of how Audi sends cars for her whenever she needs them – "Audi cabs," she called them. She was delighted at the free car service around town and I was impressed by the good Germans' achievement. Naturally assuming this clearly influenced her car buying decision, I asked her what car she drives herself. "A Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen," she replied.
If only it were as easy as just giving a celeb your car to drive and sales success followed like a Lady Gaga tweet. Exhibit B in the "No" argument is Justin Bieber's chromed-out Fisker. Lots of press, lots of buzz, but despite all the Biebers' hits, the shapely electric wunderkind car company still ended up in receivers hands, not customers.
If only it were as easy as just giving a celeb your car to drive and sales success followed like a Lady Gaga tweet.
Despite the lack of proof showing Kate Upton rubbing herself all over your car bolsters sales, automakers keep on throwing more at those who already have plenty. I'm amazed that, given the obsessive way car companies stalk stars, no one has taken out a restraining order against them in Tinsel Town.
So now that we all agree giving a celeb a car for free is a waste of a good car, how about getting the car into the celeb's workplace? The dollars are bigger to play that game, but then so must be the prizes, yes?
This is a slightly trickier area. I well remember sitting watching Mission Impossible 2, hearing the audience let out a loud groan when the cameras lingered too long on the Bulgari-logoed necklace case in the opening scene, when the sexy cat burglar goes to steal the jewels. On a happier note, however, there where warm cheers from the crowd when James Bond's BMW got sliced in two in The World Is Not Enough. You see, neither was authentic to the story. They were well paid, but not well played in the game of being judged by the company we keep. Simply put, despite the size of your checkbook, we all know the car the world's top spy drives. The name's Martin, Aston Martin. No amount of corporate hubris can change that.
Sometimes a car can bring the actor and the character together to good effect. Despite Audi's free ride offer when Robert Downey Jr. tooled up to the red carpet in an R8 Spider, it got good play since Tony Stark carried the ride through in the movie. Believable and genuine. Unlike when Mercedes attempted to join up of the storylines in Sex in the City 3 where it treated the audience like foie gras geese as it stuffed E-Class cabriolets, S-Classes, Maybachs and G-wagons down their throats more than even the more ardent fan could stomach. Groan indeed.
Despite the lack of proof showing whether Kate Upton rubbing herself all over your car bolsters sales, automakers keep on throwing more at those who already have plenty.
In the end it really doesn't matter which car the star leaves with their award in, or how it carries character from scene one to scene two. What matters is whether the audience remembers the story they were told and if that reflected well on the car – think Grace Kelly in her Mercedes 190 SL, Steve McQueen in his Ford Mustang, even David Hasselhoff in his Pontiac Trans Am. The cars shared equal billing for the star of the show. That's how this business we call show should work, when cars and stars share the same stage.