Stark Contrast: Iron Man 3’s Audi Deal Complicates Product Placement

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“Whenever Stark hangs up his suit, the technically-adept billionaire can be seen in the film behind the wheel of the all-electric R8 e-tron sports car prototype,” reads the Audi press release announcing the brand’s partnership with the upcoming Iron Man 3.

Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, was last seen driving an Acura NSX roadster in 2012’s The Avengers. In Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), Stark drove Audi R8s. A spokesman at Acura’s parent company, Honda, told Bloomberg that its role as the official vehicle of SHIELD (and the brand’s relationship with Marvel) remain “unchanged.”

“This is a strategic collaboration for us,” said Loren Angelo, a marketing executive with Audi of America. “Similar to the position of the R8 as an innovation leader, Iron Man’s character consistently evolved throughout the trilogy as he masterminds new trends.”

In addition to swapping Stark’s Acura for an Audi S7 in the third installment, Audi’s Iron Man 3 deal will go beyond the R8 e-tron.[more]

Other Audi models will pepper the film, but other Audis played roles in the first Iron Man as well, not than many noticed. The cars that get the biggest bounce from on-screen roles are those that become extensions of the star’s character. Think Frank Bullitt’s Mustang, Transformers‘ “Bumble Bee” Chevy Camaro, The Italian Job Mini or Dominic “Fast and Furious” Toretto’s numerous Dodge Chargers. (A partnership that, from the trailers, Dodge appears to have wisely extended.)

Disney-owned Marvel’s post-Avengers Audi deal has opened a can of worms. Its strategy is to tie individual hero plots—Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man—to one another with The Avengers at its core; a strategy that DC, Marvel’s comic rival, is looking to copy with the Justice League and Batman.

Ruben Igielko-Herrlich is co-founder of Propaganda GEM, the agency responsible for getting Audi into the first Iron Man. Igielko-Herrlich, who has since gone on to shepherd BMW cars into Mission Impossible 4, sees potential conflicts for brand partners in such films. “The challenge today is that if you go online all you see is the comparison. Audi, Acura; Acura, Audi. Online, you’ve got one compared to the other. If I were Audi I wouldn’t want to be mentioned in that way because they’re two very different product positionings.” Igielko-Herrlich points out that this ability to compare characters’ favorite brands did not exist before, and it should raise concern about continuity.

What Igielko-Herrlich means is that the Audi R8s featured in the first two Iron Man movies were real, available models, but Stark’s Acura NSX in The Avengers was a concept car made special for the film. Acura has said it will release a version of The Avengers‘ NSX, but that’s still at least two years away and though the R8 e-tron model in Iron Man 3 has struggled and been declared all but dead, Audi’s Patrick confirmed that the e-tron would “be made available as a small series.”

There is only one movie star who has successfully gone back and forth between auto brands and given a boost to more than one: James Bond. This is in part because of 007’s unique multi-star structure. But even then, while Bond has given Lotus a bounce and BMW a real boost, only one car’s image has proven sticky when it comes to its Bond association: Aston Martin.

Currently, Igielko-Herrlich says, “Entertainment marketing is thought of as a tactical activity and not thought of as strategic.” He describes the current approach to brand-film partnerships as opportunistic and punctual where “there long term is not thought out.”

Ironically, as Disney’s Marvel execs and others are strategically thinking about integrating their properties, they are, so far, not really doing the same for their valuable brand partners. He adds that this challenge, the need to educate everyone on both sides, is one of his biggest priorities. For now, he says, “Marvel’s objective is to get as much attention to their properties as possible to make sure their film is successful. From their perspective, whether it’s one or the other… I’m not sure how much it effects them.”

Beyond Acura and Audi, The Avengers franchise already suggests potential conflicts. The original Captain America film promoted Dunkin’ Donuts but then The Avengers—featuring Captain America—boasted a 7-Eleven tie-in that could be considered competitive. Tie-ins that have managed without any conflict (so far) are, again, 7-Eleven (Thor) and Harley-Davidson (Captain America).

China’s emerging market offers both a new challenge and potential solution. Chinese tech brand ZTE will be an Iron Man 3 partner, but T-Mobile and Samsung’s Galaxy had deals with “The Avengers.” One solution could be to add placements only for certain markets—a tactic that 2012 sci-fi film Looper used in China.

Looking back on putting Tony Stark in an Audi and the future of Tom Cruise in another BMW, Igielko-Herrlich says, “From a storytelling perspective there needs to be some kind of continuity.” He warns that if the higher profile brands in the film are switched willy-nilly, audiences, he suspects, will say, “I guess these guys paid more than the others and that’s why they’re in there.”

Because of the kind of muddled landscape raised by Audi and Iron Man, Igielko-Herrlich says that some of the most attractive properties are now ones that have never had a partnership. It was, in part, this blank-slate quality that convinced BMW to partner with the last Mission Impossible film, a franchise that Igielko-Herrlich describes as “clean.”

These “clean” franchises may attract more attention from brand partners, but they also might scare away those worried about uncontrollable potential franchise extensions. Sure, Tony Stark is driving an Audi now, but what if his sweetheart Pepper Potts convinces him to cruise in a Chrysler 500 in Iron Man 4?

While Iron Man may have done a great deal to increase awareness and demand for both Audi generally and the R8 model specifically, the actual R8 used in the first Iron Man film appears to have experienced the same pedestrian devaluation suffered by most used cars.

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