Acquiring Customers Using Film: The History of Pontiac’s Trans-Am
Last night, as I was driving the kids home from their day camp, I spotted a 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am Special Edition – just like that of “Bandit” from Smokey and the Bandit. So of course, I immediately thought of that movie, and the late Jerry Reed, and his song “Eastbound and Down” (which I imagine you’re now hearing your head as well). While Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason are stars, the star of that film was definitely the car.
That got me thinking about how creative storytelling, what marketers like to call “content”, can impact the acquisition of new customers. While Smokey and the Bandit wasn’t an intentional boost for Pontiac, the results are rather impressive. I went and looked up the sales of Pontiac Trans-Am’s in 1977 following the Smokey and the Bandit films. Here’s what I found (according to Edmunds):
This  was also the year the Trans Am became firmly established as the car of the 1970’s when Burt Reynolds drove a black-and-gold Special Edition through the unexpected hit Smokey and The Bandit. The Bandit’s Trans Am may have looked great, but it wasn’t particularly quick — Hot Rodmagazine tested a similar car and could only muster a 16.02-second run down the quarter-mile at 89.64 mph. It sure was popular, though, as Pontiac sold 68,745 Trans Ams along with 86,991 other assorted Firebirds during 1977.
With no reason to mess with success, the 1978 Firebird and Trans Am basically carried over from the ’77 except that there were a lot more “special editions” like a gold Trans Am with brown accents and blue “Sky Bird” and red “Red Bird” Firebirds. America snatched up 93,341 Trans Ams and 93,944 other Firebirds for an astounding total of 187,285 — the best sales year ever.
Now, in 1979 (according to other figures I found), Pontiac produced 211K cars. By 1980 – that plummeted to nearly half – 104K cars. I think this isn’t half bad. For basically zero dollars, Pontaic got a massive boost in the popularity of a car it produced for roughly two years. Yes, ultimately the 1980’s happened, and seeing Burt Reynolds and Sally Field got old, and ultimately the Sheriff Buford T. Justice movies got even weirder, but for a period of time… everyone saw themselves as “Bandit” and Pontaic sold more cars in three years than they had in the decade prior.
Is this a fluke? Hardly. There are other examples that come to mind.
Acquiring Customers Using Film: Military Style
The movie Full Metal Jacket had a direct impact on the recruitment of the US Military. You may not understand this, but the US military spends millions of dollars of years recruiting. The lowest spend of that group, oddly enough, is the United States Marine Corps.
The Marines have never had a problem meeting their recruitment targets. Oddly enough, the portrayal of “Sgt. Hartmann” (by Lee Ermey – who is a very nice guy and a brilliant actor, I’ve met him when he was filming Mail Call one late night at the Pentagon when I worked there) had a direct negative impact on the recruiting efforts of the US Military.
While the US Military met its recruiting goals following the release of Kubrick’s masterpiece, and the Marines actually exceeded their goals for recruitment (they always do), the film’s negative portrayal of basic marine training as well as Kubrick’s dehumanization theme, had a direct impact on the post-Reagan post-Coldwar recruiting generation (I was among them). It was a hangover that took the military nearly two decades to overcome, which included changing the “mantra” of the US Army – from “Be all you can Be” to the “Army of One”.
Staying in the military vein, the movie Top Gun made it easier for the US Navy to recruit (while becoming a Navy Pilot is a difficult road, the Navy didn’t have too much difficulty finding men who wanted to fly F14’s and F18’s). The idea of “Maverick and Goose” whizzing around in 50 million dollar aircraft battling “the MiG” made an impact on the wannabe pilots. David Robb, in his book Operation Hollywood: How the US Military Shapes and Censors the Movies tells this story:
Paramount Pictures offered to place a 90-second Navy recruiting advertisement at the beginning of the videocassette for Top Gun, in exchange for $1 million in credit towards their debt to the Navy for production assistance. An internal memo to the Pentagon from an advertising agency rejected the offer, noting that “Both movies are already wonderful recruiting tools for the military, particularly the Navy, and to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”
After the film’s release, the US Navy stated that the number of young men who joined wanting to be Naval Aviators went up by 500 percent.
Acquiring Customers Using Films: How much?
I get movie house pitches regularly for “in cinema placement” of brands. My favorite pitch from the movie houses remains for the film Machete – where the producers were soliciting brands that were described as “related to sex, alcohol, firearms, or related activities.” So I suppose the perfect client for that film would have been the whiskey decanter shaped as a penis that also doubled as a shotgun. Alas, I don’t represent such clients.
However, agency people like me receive such pitches routinely; they seem to fall in the 50-100K dollar range having reviewed about 15 of them now. While Hollywood having fallen on increasingly harder times, they seem to be more and more interested in partnering with brands to raise the capital needed to make major films. If I had represented a brand like Smith & Wesson, or Remington, or perhaps even an up and coming whiskey trying to take on someone like Jack Daniels – it might have been a realistic option.
Put simply, these films do demonstrate that it is possible to acquire new customers using film. If you’re a larger consumer brand, as a CMO, it probably wouldn’t hurt to explore the idea. Hollywood film makers do seem to be amenable to getting financial backing for their creative works and a two hour commercial on Network TV would cost about 72 million dollars (maybe 60 if you negotiate). Thus, for a few cool million, you could probably get a really nice spot embedded in the plot line in a way that makes your brand attractive to new customers.
I mean, who can forget Dirty Harry?
I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking “did he fire six shots or only five?” Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?
S&W had one of its best years for the 44 magnum in 1971. Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?