Commentary

Brandtique: Mercury Mariner, Honda CR-V

For years, Detroit's desire to "show the metal" has been music to the ears of ad salesmen. No matter what the medium--outdoor, print, television or elsewhere--advertising from the Big Three automakers has focused on displaying the sleekness and cruising agility of their cars. And they have spent so handsomely that the amount of dollars a media outlet garners from the GMs and Fords in a particular year can have a monumental effect on their bottom line.

Now, as the age of product placement has taken hold, Detroit and its overseas challengers, Toyota, Nissan and Honda, have aggressively driven their "show the metal" mantra to reality and scripted shows. In the scripted arena, the vehicles have been woven into the story lines of dramas, and are a staple at crime scenes in procedurals. But it's on reality shows where carmakers' inventory (usually SUVs) are most visible--particularly as prizes on the ever-growing number of competition-reality shows.

And there's no sign of the unimaginative trend coming to a red light. In the recent finale of HGTV's "Design Star" and a final episode of CBS' "Rock Star: Supernova," contestants were lavished with new SUVs. In each award scene, the respective hosts excitedly touted the new vehicles, while the thrilled contestants expressed shock and awe.

In the Sept. 10 "Design Star," the two finalists each received a Mercury Mariner. They gleefully hugged each other, ran to the vehicles and jumped in the drivers' seats. Next, they mawkishly waved to the cameras in a move reminiscent of a "Price is Right" winner after Bob Barker's signature "you've won a NEW CAR!" Essentially, a commercial for the Mariner followed, with shots of the SUV in action, coupled with ample glimpses of the interior.

On the Sept. 12 "Rock Star," a contestant named as a fan favorite wins a Honda CR-V. Host Brooke Burns touts the vehicle's "awesome sound system," XM Radio, heated seats and other amenities. Almost on cue, the CR-V takes center stage with exterior and interior shots.

What's a bit quizzical is the enthusiasm the would-be rock star, Ryan, shows after being told he's won the ride. He whoops it up with the audience, then runs over to the SUV. To be sure, he may be a struggling amateur in need of new wheels--but wouldn't a super-cool rocker act a tad more mellow? Say, a quick fist pump, then back to the music.

(Both brand appearances were among the top-ranked product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX.)

The continuous run of reality contestants walking away with new vehicles begs the question: Does the marketing tactic work? It's hard to believe it does.

By simple default, if it's a staple of the reality-competition genre, that means clutter. And that's the bane of every advertiser. Then it gets down to the issue of whether reality-television finalists have any endorsement power. Can they really help sell cars? After all, they aren't beating the competition in the next Nascar race.

Also, automakers are clearly counting on goodwill and perhaps a halo effect on sales from awarding winners. But the new SUV is always a secondary prize, so who will associate Mercury or Honda with the show--or remember the brand--when the big award is getting your own show ("Design Star") or the chance to record an album with a major label ("Rock Star")? Quick quiz: What car did the two finalists on last spring's "American Idol" take home?

As far as product placement in competition-reality shows goes, "showing the metal" doesn't have much mettle.

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