Is Cars 2 Product Placement Really ‘Product Placement’?


If it was up to automakers (and Hollywood), every year would see a stream of sequels from the three hit movie franchises hitting theaters through April and June this year.

Between Fast Five, Cars 2 and the upcoming Transformers 3, audiences have willingly subjected themselves to a level of auto product placement from Hollywood hits that borders on pornography. Call it “carnography.”

From Ford Mustangs and Dodge Chargers to Range Rovers, VWs and the Chevy “Bublebee” Camaro, has there ever been a better three-month stretch for cinephile gearheads?

But while the Transformers and Fast Five series are straightforward about highlighting models, Cars 2 plays faster and looser, leaning on car brand stereotypes when necessary, and mixing and matching brands.[more]

In several ways, Cars 2 challenges the very definition of how we define “product placement” and how our own Brandcameo database records a “spot.”

We’ve already looked at how many brands have deep marketing tie-ins with Cars 2. For example, Goodyear has offscreen Cars-branded messaging, but it only makes it into the film in the form of “Lightyear.” Now, is it a “product placement” for Goodyear when its brand name is tweaked?

It’s a winking reference, to be sure — and just the start of the oblique brand references sprinkled throughout the film — a nod to parents who don’t want overt marketing to their kids, but clever enough to market to those same parents viewing Cars 2 with their kids, who will get the in-jokes.

Another real-life (non-kiddy) brand with a Cars 2 tie-in is State Farm. Currently, the insurer is running Cars 2 ads such as this:

Now, State Farm is not mentioned by name or logo in the film, but in one scene, lovable doofus Tow-Mater makes a joke with the punchline “Like a good neighbor, Mater is there.”

Is that a State Farm “product placement?” Unless one knows the jingle and tagline, the reference would fly over viewers’ heads.

All of this gets even more compacted when it comes to the Cars characters, many of which are readily identifiable, some of which are not, and some of which seem to be… almost… but not really.

Pixar’s use of real car brand models has extended to the second film. Sally the Porsche is back, as is Fillmore the Volkswagen bus. A race announcer named Brent Mustangberger is unmistakeable as, of course, a Ford Mustang; another talk show host brandishes the easily identifiable Cadillac crest. 

The British spy car? Of course, it’s an Aston Martin. Audi’s linked rings are visible throughout the film. Jeff “Gorvette” bears the flag standard of the Corvette.

In fact, the film’s whole plot revolves around brand names, focusing on how resentful auto brands like Pacers and Gremlins are about being so despised by society. An interesting sidenote about this “evil lemons” Cars 2 subplot is that Disney’s Pixar studio chose lemon brands that not only are nearly all out of production, but also were all made by now-defunct brands, especially AMC (Pacer/Gremlin).

For example, Chevrolet’s Chevette is not featured in the film despite easily making it onto anyone’s worst cars of all time list. Ditto Ford’s Pinto. Instead, Pixar opts for reserving the bulk of the insults for AMC and Yugo, both of which are now defunct. (Way to not offend potential advertisers!)

Then there are the brands that are not so identifiable.

Amongst Cars fans and car fans in general, the background of one new character is open to debate. American spy car Rod “Torque” Redline is a character clearly meant to hint at American muscle cars. But which one?

Maybe it’s more important to ask which brand isn’t suggested at. As Autoblog wrote, “Sorry Camaro, your influence seems AWOL on Mr. Redline, but you’re already the star of a little independant [sic] film franchise called Transformers.”

Rod clearly has some Dodge Challenger influence, although many also see a Ford Mustang in him. Evocative of both, but really neither, does Rod count as a product placement for Mustang and Challenger, or neither?

A similar quandary can be found with Sir Miles Axelrod, inventor of fake alternative fuel brand Allinol. 

Axelrod is obviously influenced by a Range Rover, though the auto is not quite. The presence of Range Rovers in the film (as the Queen’s bodyguards) makes Sir Axelrod’s brand reference all the more convoluted.

Nonetheless, audience members clearly identified Sir Axelrod as a Range Rover.

So, does one count these brands as having appeared in the film? Some of them? Which ones? 

One of the Cars characters that got its owners into trouble after being clearly identified was the jalopy on which lovable idiot Tow-Mater was fashioned.

The Four Women on the Route filling station and pit stop in Galena, Kansas on legendary Route 66 is, claims Four Women on the Route, the home of the rusted tow truck that was the inspiration for Tow-Mater.

But when the owners put a sign on their truck identifying it as such, the long arm of Disney’s legal department came calling. “Disney asked us to rename it because of copyright reasons, which we kind of figured,” one of the Four Women owners told NPR. To solve the problem, they held a contest and now “we call our truck Tow Tater, the inspiration for Tow Mater.”

An early clip from next week’s Transformers 3, as well as the Chevy Camaro tie-in spot, suggest the carnography is only about to get more graphic.

For all the brands we deemed identifiable in Cars 2, visit this week’s Brandcameo product placement tracker.

(“Tow-Tater” image via