Sun, Aug 18, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Electric vehicles still waiting for Hollywood

By Kyle Lahucik  /  Bloomberg

A Tesla Model 3 undergoes testing in Ruckersville, Virginia, on July 22.

Photo: Reuters

Ever since James Dean reveled in teen angst in his Mercury coupe in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause, cars have been pumping exhaust into pop culture.

A decade later it was Steve McQueen losing hubcaps in a Bullitt Mustang, then Burt Reynolds burst into box office lore as the cop-fleeing Bandit behind the wheel of a Pontiac Trans Am. This month, Jason Statham swerved a McLaren 720S under two tractor trailers to escape the motorcycle-riding antagonist in the latest Fast and Furious film, Hobbs & Shaw.

However, while gas guzzlers have scorched their mark on the silver screen, electric vehicles (EV) are largely still waiting for their turn to reign over the red carpet. Plug-ins might be capturing more cool factor, especially Tesla Inc and its high-tech rides, but they are yet to land much time on screen. Since these models typically lose money and still make up less than 2 percent of the US market, automakers still devote much of their precious marketing dollars promoting combustion cars by getting them cast for roles on make-believe roads.

“The business 101 would be that you’re making a ton of money on your large pickup trucks and your large SUVs, so the dollar you put into marketing on those pays back more than the dollar you put into the EVs that you’re losing money on,” said Mark Wakefield, head of the automotive practice at consulting firm AlixPartners.

There have been a handful of recent exceptions. The smash-hit Marvel Studios film Avengers: Endgame features Iron Man in an electric Audi e-tron GT, and the car stars as just the kind of futuristic gadget Tony Stark would want to own.

However, automakers are still mostly sticking to showing off the sports cars that burnish brand image or their moneymakers in movies and television series. Take General Motors Co: While it was in bankruptcy, the automaker had trouble keeping Camaros in stock the summer it starred as Bumblebee in the Transformers series. The Chevrolet Bolt, meanwhile, has been much harder to find on screen.

Placement in a big movie can cost an automaker millions. TV spots tend to go for much less. When it comes to placing products in Hollywood, television and music videos, “typically you don’t pay for it unless it is central to the plot line or the car name is mentioned,” Michael McSunas, the former leader of product placement for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, said in an e-mail.

Companies will typically pay for a vehicle’s transportation to the set or have an agency handle the placements for them. Overall, the average paid placement for television is about US$30,000, McSunas said.

“A car in this country is a lot more than a vehicle on four wheels that you get from point A to point B,” said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University television and population culture media professor. “Cars are filled with American mythology, and lots of it. And the electric car just hasn’t been around long enough to gather that kind of mythology.”

Electric vehicles were largely curio for green activists until 2012, when Tesla’s Model S started selling. The Nissan Leaf also was establishing a market position, and the public started seeing more EVs on the road, raising their profile, said Raejean Fellows, president of the Electric Auto Association.

However, the road to Tesla getting traction in the market has not been through theaters. The electric-car leader eschews traditional advertising and instead relies on the promotional prowess of its showman chief executive officer, Elon Musk.

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