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‘Transformers’ a GM ad in disguise

Posters outside theaters across the country list Jon Voight, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox as the stars of the summer action flick “Transformers.”
The Chevrolet Camaro, left, and Pontiac Solstice have featured roles "Transformers."Carlos Osorio / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Posters outside theaters across the country list Jon Voight, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox as the stars of the summer action flick “Transformers.”

But in the labs and cubicles where General Motors Corp. workers design and market new cars, the true leads are the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Solstice, GMC TopKick and Hummer H2.

“You’re going to see these cars as the heroes. You’re not going to see the other actors,” said Dino Bernacchi, GM’s associate director of branded entertainment. “These cars are the stars, literally, in the movie.”

GM, which long has sought to reach younger car buyers to so-so results, is hoping to draw the 18-to-34 set to its showrooms thanks to the company’s oversized presence in the film and in the accompanying toys and video games.

The Detroit auto giant is spending millions to promote and market its “Transformers” tie-ins, but wouldn’t give a figure. With a shrinking U.S. automotive market and amid stiff competition from overseas rivals, GM is banking on the exposure translating into sales.

“This is hopefully a discovery point for maybe some of those who didn’t know the great design, the great-looking vehicles that we have out today,” Bernacchi said. “I find it really difficult to believe that a global blockbuster movie like this that has so many merchandising components to it that we’re not going to get incremental exposure.”

And exposure is exactly what GM gets in the film.

The word “Camaro” is mentioned a handful of times by various characters, and close-ups of the Chevy, Pontiac, GMC and Hummer logos get ample screen time.

“Product placement has never been so blatant, and the potential for a global platform to build brand awareness could not have come at a better time for GM,” said David Koehler, a clinical marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The younger demographic most likely to flock to the theaters is exactly what GM needs,” he said.

But Erich Merkle, vice president of forecasting for Grand Rapids-based auto consulting company IRN Inc., cautions that even though young people might be impressed with the rides in the movie doesn’t mean they’ll end up buying GM.

“Keep in mind that some of the vehicles they’re showing are vehicles the youth market won’t be able to afford,” he said.

“But they do have a tremendous influence over what people who can afford those vehicles go to buy. You shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the youth. I don’t know a Baby Boomer out there who doesn’t want to be cool.”

Those who shell out to see “Transformers” probably aren’t all that concerned about free-falling market shares or upcoming union negotiations. They want action, and that’s what they’re going to get from these GM vehicles.

Through the magic of filmmaking, they transform into “Autobots” — heroic aliens that take mechanical forms on Earth. The Autobots, which strive for a peaceful coexistence with humans, battle the evil Decepticons, whose goal is to dominate the universe.

The DreamWorks/Paramount film, which opens this week, is based on Hasbro’s “robots in disguise” toys and the cartoon series, both of which were popular among children in the 1980s.

For the film’s producers and director Michael Bay, it was a natural to bring in GM on the project.

Bay has helmed a number of GM commercials and worked with the company on past films, including “Bad Boys II” in which a Hummer plays a central role in a car chase.

“It’s a company that understands Hollywood’s work process, and you need that,” said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who served as a producer on the movie.

“In many ways, we couldn’t have made this movie without a company like GM,” he said.

Bay’s relationship with the automaker — both as a filmmaker and as a consumer — goes back many years, and he is longtime fan of the Camaro, the legendary Detroit muscle car that first hit the road four decades ago.

The director of “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” saw a concept version of the new Camaro in 2005 at a GM design center and then in early 2006 at the Detroit auto show. Bay knew he wanted the iconic car to be the yellow-and-black Bumblebee, a courageous Autobot spy who protects LaBeouf’s character from danger.

Bumblebee transformed into a Volkswagen Beetle during the series’ 1980s heyday, but Bay was set on the concept Camaro.

GM staged a review of its product portfolio in California so the director could pick out the remainder of the movie’s automotive cast.

He selected the Solstice to be the stylish and wisecracking Jazz, which was a Porsche in the 1980s. Rounding out the Autobot lineup are the tough-as-nails Ironhide (the TopKick medium-duty truck) and the medical officer Ratchet, which converts from the Hummer H2.

The Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, is an 18-wheeler.

The Decepticons change into a jet, a helicopter and a police car — a Saleen Mustang, an aftermarket version of the famed Ford muscle car and a longtime Camaro competitor. Ford Motor Co. did not have any involvement in the vehicle’s appearance in the film.

The Solstice, TopKick and Hummer can be seen driving down a local thoroughfare on any given day, but the Camaro won’t be produced until late next year. Each of the three existing vehicles was slightly modified for the movie, but the Camaro took the most effort.

Its exterior in the film is very similar to what the production vehicle will look like, but “the interior isn’t quite cosmetically correct,” Bernacchi said. The movie Camaro’s chassis and engine actually belong to a Pontiac GTO built in Australia. GM designers provided the studio with the data so it could drop the Camaro shell on top of the chassis it was using for the film.

In “Transformers,” Bumblebee takes the shape of a well-traveled 1970s-era Camaro, prompting Fox’s character to ask: “Why if he’s such a super advanced robot does he turn into this piece of crap Camaro?”

Not long after, Bumblebee upgrades to the concept Camaro, an event that di Bonaventura said has been met with spontaneous audience applause at a number of screenings, including at a film festival in Italy.

GM is hoping car buyers have a similar reaction.

“I really think it’s going to make a difference,” Bernacchi said.