BMW Got Mileage Out of Net Flicks

by , Jan 4, 2002, 12:00 AM
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In a war-ravaged South American city, a photojournalist snaps a picture certain to expose the rebel leadership to world outrage and retaliation. He must get himself and his film passed armed soldiers and across the fiercely guarded border to safety. His only hope for escape is his driver and a BMW X5 3.0i, a vehicle that handles "extreme road conditions without breaking stride."

To learn how this adventure ends, you’ll have to log on to www.BMWFilms.com, a website that’s garnered rave reviews from some of online advertising’s toughest critics. Produced by Los Angeles-based Anonymous Content, and directed by award-winning movie directors such as John Frankenheimer (Manchurian Candidate) and Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the films were designed to emphasize the driving power and pure excellence of some stylish BMW toys. It’s an extraordinary example of how the Internet can blur the lines between advertising and entertainment. Sure, there are those who think the BMW film series was less about cinema art and more about corporate commerce, about "selling a dream." And they’re right.

Using 30-second action-packed film clips run on TV and in movie theaters, the upscale German automaker began blazing a trail across multiple media screens last year. When the first of five online short action films debuted online, the buzz alone caused a spike in traffic of 55 percent. BMW executives claimed to have received over 100,000 unique hits to the site during its first two days online. Later statistics revealed numbers as high as 214,000 unique visits.

To date, the site has received 11 million film views as web surfers continue to log on from home and work to view a blend of Big Screen raw emotion with the cheesy Hollywood practice of using a name-brand consumer product as a prop, the way a Ray Ban-sporting Tom Cruise in Risky Business once bolstered sunglass sales. And even though the company stopped promoting the series last year, roughly 15,000 people still view the films daily, says Jim McDowell, vice president of marketing for BMW, North America.

In fact, last year when the films premiered, Steve Golin, whose multimedia company Anonymous Content worked with producer David Fincher (Seven) on the BMW series, predicted that these five films would "shake up" the industry. "We think it’s the way things will go in the future. More product placement than advertising," he said.

By specifically gearing the campaign to online consumers with high-speed connections, BMW zeroed in on its target market: males between 35 and 49 with income brackets of $75,000 and higher. This key audience stayed for the DVD-like features, including compelling substories, director commentaries, still photos, and specs about the BMWs driven in the films.

Still, it was pure inspiration for BMW to transform its market research data into heart-pounding, quick-cut action scenes that entice BMW’s core customers to travel from the big and small screens to the company’s website. "Our prospects like to look at useful technology as their friend," says BMW’s McDowell. "We know that when we try an online marketing campaign that’s innovative and fresh, it will get them excited enough to recommend it to their friends."

McDowell says the Hire film series generated an array of interesting marketing data (most of which he labels as proprietary information). "For some strange reason, people think television is more easily measurable than the Internet. I disagree. The Internet gives you a far richer portrait of measurable information, as long as you establish baseline measurements first."

Of course, liaisons between corporate America and Hollywood are nothing new. They offer a win-win strategy corporate marketers desire for discrete, high-profile exposure of their products, while studios reap the benefits of production cost-reductions, corporate-sponsored movie promotions and occasional fees.

However, BMW of North American managed to turn the standard placement process on its head by going after award-winning talent to make product-specific, online, short action films that tell consumers why they always wanted a BMW. And not necessarily because of the car’s superbly engineered suspension or advanced safety features, but because some darkly handsome 007-type expertly executed a speeding 180-degree turn or a full-speed reverse, and still walked away with his life and his gleaming—albeit bullet-riddled—BMW at the end of the chase. Just like in the movies.

And it’s true: The BMW film series made viewers feel as though they were witnessing a wide-screen movie that both crosses and pushes boundaries by putting a new spin on product showcasing. But does it sell cars? How many of those initial 214,000 unique visitors were more interested in the short films than the featured machines? Or does it really matter? On average, surfers spent more than six minutes on the site, and that’s got to count for something.

"Let’s put it this way," says McDowell, "our company had its most successful sales year in history last year. We sold more than 200,000 vehicles, and we know that 85 percent of those people have been to our mother website to either build a virtual BMW or request more dialogue."

Doubtless the competition in the luxury auto market and the economic slowdown have forced companies to create new online vision of their products and images. Volkswagen, for example, showed films on its website through a partnership with Atomfilms, but the company’s content neither featured nor highlighted its vehicles.

Like it or not, BMW has found a way to separate itself from the pack—so far. But is there a future for this particular blend of art and commerce?

Manufacturers and the advertising industry are obviously going to watch the experiment closely. While BMW has already had some success with product placement in Bond films, it remains to be seen whether this sort of collaboration between Hollywood and consumer manufacturers can actually make the web the determining factor between what sells products and what doesn’t.

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