It is hard to say how the executives at Audi, the German carmaker, reacted to the news that New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady had been in a crash with the 2010 A8 sedan the manufacturer had loaned him. On the one hand we can presume they were happy he wasn’t hurt. On the other, the incident – which was another driver’s fault – made headlines across the country.
Within a few days of his mishap every red-blooded sports fan and car buyer knew that Brady, three-time Super Bowl champion, was partial to Audis. They also could have learned the car cost $97,000, that it was luxurious, and so well-designed that he had walked away from the accident unscathed and able to take part in football practice later that same day. It was, in short, great publicity. So much so that within a week Audi replaced Brady’s wrecked A8 with a new one.
For the public at large this was a fleeting glimpse into the world of celebrity-dom. You may be on Oprah’s birthday card list, Donald Trump may insist that you call him ‘Don,’ and Paris Hilton may ask you to appear in her next home movie, but you haven’t really arrived until a carmaker suggests you garage your own car and take one of theirs.
Paradoxically, while it is customary for most manufacturers to provide cars gratis to VIPs in the hope that car and driver will be seen, recognized, and admired, the list of “who gets what” is a jealously guarded secret while some makes and models are in greater demand than others.
For instance, if Mitsubishi rarely provides celebrities with cars it’s not because they’re not willing to comply; rather, it is because the Japanese carmaker is not often asked. “We’re off the radar,” says Maurice Durand, Mitsubishi Manager of Product Communications. “We don’t have celebrities coming to us and saying, “I’d like a Mitsubishi for the weekend.”
The manufacturer did recently provide rapper Ne-Yo with a Mitsubishi to ride around in but that, says Durand, was an exception rather than the rule. It’s different, though, in Japan and China where Karate Kid co-star Jackie Chan drives a Mitsubishi. “Celebrity placement is very important in Asia,” says Durand.
BMW takes a more blasé attitude to accommodating celebrity whims. “We are very fortunate that many high-profile individuals enjoy driving BMW products,” says Stacy Morris, BMW Marketing Communications Manager. “But celebrities come and they go and they regularly solicit BMW to borrow cars or get preferential treatment.”
Some aspirants have their wishes fulfilled and some go away disappointed. “We do not have a program for celebrity endorsements or ‘brand ambassadors.’ Each person is individually evaluated on their own merits,” says Morris.
So if you think you’re a celebrity but are not sure, you can call BMW to find out.
Celebrity perks are not to be confused with the practice of “product placement” which involves providing cars for TV shows or movies. The difference is, while carmakers generally condone product placement as above-board and effective some automotive execs recoil from any discussion of cars as celebrity perks.
For instance, Lincoln is currently airing TV commercials featuring actor John Slattery, who portrays the silver-haired Roger Sterling in the hit dramatic series “Mad Men.” “We use him as a celebrity spokesman,” says a Ford marketing executive on condition of anonymity. “He’s positioned as a man who knows luxury. The latest commercials show him driving around town in a MKZ and MKX.”
But off camera, has Lincoln provided him with a car to drive?
“We would prefer not to answer that,” says the Lincoln man.
We’ll take that as a ‘yes.’
If it’s any consolation to the average Joe, today’s celebrities aren’t what they used to be; the so-called stars encountered on TV reality and gossip shows possess all the social skills of a train wreck. White House party crasher and self-styled VIP Michaela Salahi was kicked off the reality TV show “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” when preliminary diagnosis showed she was insufficiently psychotic to qualify for celebrity rehab.
Even an interest in upscale cars may not produce the audience a carmaker hopes to reach. Thus the web site “What do celebrities drive?” reveals that Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony drive an Aston Martin DB7 and Lotus Elise respectively, Ryan Gosling drives a black Toyota Prius, and Pierce Brosnan wheels around town in an Aston Martin Vanquish. But what are we to make of the site’s companion piece entitled “50 Drinking Games Guaranteed to Get You Hammered.”
Nonetheless, says Celeste Atkinson, former Manager, Lifestyle PR and Entertainment Communications for Audi and now lifestyle consultant to the company, the value of providing cars as celebrity perks is easily illustrated. “Say you’re a photographer for a magazine and you see a new Audi parked by the side of the road. Do you stop and take a picture? Probably not. But if you see that same car with a celebrity standing next to it, chances are, you will.”
brands target. Besides the garden variety VIPs – star athletes, movie stars, newscasters – Porsche is especially willing to provide its new luxury sedan, the Panamera, to TV chefs or authors of cookbooks. “These people appeal to the same demographic as Porsche buyers,” says Porsche product publicity manager Gary Fong. “They aspire to the good life, they travel, and they want to drive a vehicle that reflects their own sense of taste and individuality.”
Jaguar, a frequent sponsor of high fashion shows, is more likely to bestow its courtesy cars on designers, models, or fashion commentators while at Mercedes, eco-consciousness is all the rage. At least, that’s how it went at the last Oscars awards where such stars as Natalie Portman, Amy Adams, Mark Wahlberg, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Robert Duval, James Franco, Eva Mendes, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and others arrived in super-green Mercedes F-cell cars courtesy of the Stuttgart-based car maker. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Christine Chase, Mercedes Corporate Communications Manager. “It’s the natural choice for any eco-minded luxury/technology lover.”
In some cases the celebrities Mercedes gave cars to were already M-B owners while others had been driving compact hybrids from other makes. What all of them had in common was that they agreed to drive the latest Mercedes eco-technology in return for having their names used as trying the technology.
Sometimes it’s not a carmaker but a dealer who elevates an athlete or performer to celebrity status. Such is the case in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Chase Utley, second basemen for the Philadelphia Phillies, drives an Audi S5 during spring training. “We have tons of athletes and anchormen driving our cars,” says Ian Jeffery, General Manager of Willow Grove Audi. Among them are the dealership’s owner, Don Rosen, the star of more than 100 radio and print commercials. “We’ve shown him singing and playing the trumpet,” says Rosen’s ad man Eliot Curson. “ He’s always off key; the butt of the joke.”
The campaign has been a tremendous success. “People recognize him, they point him out, they come up and shake his hand.”
And why not? “He’s famous,” says Curson.” “He’s a celebrity.”