Electric upstarts yet to match gas-guzzlers for star appeal

Plug-ins may be capturing more cool factor, especially Tesla and its high-tech rides, but they haven't landed much time on the silver screen

Philip Floyd, senior engineering technician for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), demonstrates a front crash prevention test on a 2018 Tesla Model 3 at the IIHS-HLDI Vehicle Research Center in Ruckersville, Virginia, U.S., July 22, 2019. Picture taken July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Amanda Voisard
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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 past weekend, 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.

And, as with their human counterparts, automotive screen superstars can attract big money. McQueen's 1968 Ford GT40 Gulf/Mirage Lightweight Racer that featured in the 1971 film Le mans sold at auction for $11 million (Dh40.39m) in 2012, while the1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spider that starred alongside Matthew Broderick in the 1986 smash Ferris Bueller's Day Off  was sold for $10.9m to British TV personality Chris Evans in 2008. And few could forget the Batmobile from the classic TV series Batman that ran from 1966 to 1968, basically a customised Ford Lincoln Futura. It fetched $4.4m at auction in 2013.

American actor Steve McQueen (1930 - 1980) as Frank Bullit next to a Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback in the american crime thriller movie 'Bullitt', San Francisco, 1968. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
American actor Steve McQueen (1930 - 1980) as Frank Bullit next to a Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback in the american crime thriller movie 'Bullitt', San Francisco, 1968. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

But while gas-guzzlers have scorched their mark on the silver screen - and collectors' pockets, electric cars are largely still waiting for their turn to reign over the red carpet. Plug-ins may be capturing more cool factor, especially Tesla and its high-tech rides, but they’ve yet to land much time on screen. Since these models typically lose money and still make up less than 2 per cent of the US market, car makers still devote much of their precious marketing dollars promoting combustion cars by getting them cast for roles on make-believe roads, according to Bloomberg.

“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.

But car makers are still mostly sticking to showing off the sports cars that burnish brand image or their money makers in movies and television series. Take General Motors: while it was in bankruptcy, the car maker had trouble keeping Camaros in stock the summer it starred as Bumblebee in the Transformers series. More recently, the company reached out to a diverse audience by placing its GMC Sierra pick-up in the revamp of the hit show Queer Eye. The Chevrolet Bolt, meanwhile, has been much harder to find on screen.

Placement in a big movie can cost a car maker 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”, said Michael McSunas, the former leader of product placement for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

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 around $30,000, Mr 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 cars 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.

But the road to Tesla getting traction in the market hasn’t been through theatres. The electric-car leader eschews traditional advertising and instead relies on the promotional prowess of its showman chief executive, Elon Musk.

The car makers that do have big advertising budgets have few EVs to feature on film. That will change, but it’s still expected to take years - Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts electric vehicles will take over a majority of the global market around 2037.

China is the fastest adopter of electric vehicles (EVs) worldwide, according to a World Economic Forum report last year, and is expected to account for half of global sales over the next seven years.

In 2017, a fifth of all EV sales were in just six Chinese cities, where there are tight restrictions on buying and using new internal combustion engines.

By 2025, EV sales across the world are set to increase ten-fold, to 11 million. In China, EVs will account for 19 per cent of all passenger vehicle sales, compared to 14 per cent in Europe and 11 per cent in the US, according to Bloomberg's Electric Vehicles Outlook 2018.

Today, however, even when battery-powered cars do get on screen, they’re often lampooned as slow or nerdy. Cinema Vehicles, one of the largest suppliers of rental vehicles in Hollywood, television and commercials, said it has just one electric vehicle at its Los Angeles lot: a 2011 Nissan Leaf.

The car served as the Uber that actor Kumail Nanjiani's character, Stu, drives in the film Stuber about a cop on the hunt for a brutal killer.

The Leaf takes a beating. At one point in the film, two of Stu’s riders giggle at his choice of transportation.

“Stop laughing; this is a Leaf,” Stu tells them. They erupt in even louder laughter.

In the series Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's ride was a Toyota Prius hybrid. David, who played everyone's bête noire in the satirical series about his own life, was often seen slowly puttering down the street as comical music played in the background.

“An awful lot of the culture of electric vehicles within popular culture has probably tended to be more pejorative than it has been celebratory,” said Prof Thompson. “It’s not right, but there are an awful lot of people out there who make the assumption that people who drive electric cars are also people who eat kale.”

Trying to turn the mockery on its head is the public-private advocacy group Veloz, which recently debuted a campaign called Kicking Gas, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger pokes fun at the internal combustion engine.

“On behalf of big oil, I want to thank you all for choosing muscle cars that use gasoline,” Schwarzenegger, who plays a car salesman, says over a dealership intercom.

Car makers won’t want to strike a similar tone in advertising their EVs, since the companies would effectively be shaming what’s in showrooms.

“The golden rule is that you don’t talk bad about your product,” AlixPartners’ Wakefield said. “Effectively, it is talking bad about the 99 per cent of your portfolio that is selling and, of that portfolio, a third of it is highly profitable.

“You don’t want to kill the golden goose."