Without a doubt, audiences walking out of The Avengers are going to remember seeing one brand among the many that pop up throughout the movie: Acura.
The automaker filled the film, literally start to finish, with its models. And it capped it all off with at the end with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony "Iron Man" Stark hopping into a new, attention-grabbing Acura NSX roadster — and straight onto the carpet at the movie's premiere.
In the product placement world, The Avengers tie-in is a bit of a coup for Acura, with Stark having preferred Audi R8s in both previous Iron Man films. But by providing only a concept car for its most high profile role ever, has Acura dropped the product placement ball?
In 2008, Audi partnered for the first time with Marvel to put "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" Tony Stark behind the wheel of its new R8 super car. The partnership was a hit, with both the character and the car complimenting one another.
Two years later, Audi revised its Iron Man role, putting Stark in the seat of the R8 Spyder.
In both cases, Audi was using the cars to create a Halo effect for the whole brand. In something of a coup, Audi models appeared in the background of the first Iron Man film, but the focus, and what audiences left remembering was the R8. At the time, Audi hoped that even those who could not plunk down the cash for the R8 might consider, say, a similar-looking TT.
In Acura's case, while the NSX roadster is the icing on its this product placement partnership, it's the RDX model that sparkles throughout The Avengers that audiences will probably remember. A fine little SUV to be sure, but hardly inspiring as it is basically the fleet car for the faceless and nameless agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Essentially, it's what the Ford Taurus was to government vehicles 20 years ago.
The reason the RDX is the featured Acura model and not the NSX is that the NSX isn't a real car, red carpet showboating notwithstanding. The concept vehicle isn't even a true concept. From the Edmunds Avengers test drive:
"The doors open easily and feel solid — like a real NSX. Once they're open, however, what awaits the driver is a throwback interior barely changed from 1990. That's because, under its skin, The Tony Stark Acura NSX Roadster is really a 1991 Acura NSX."
Essentially, the NSX roadster is the equivalent of guys with expert reproduction Iron Man costumes: great looking on the outside, but on the inside it's just a costume.
Audi itself has learned that cool looking concept cars placed in films often don't go beyond just cool concepts. In 2004, the brand garnered tons of media and audience attention with its RSQ sport coupe concept car in the sci-fi film I, Robot. See, also, the Lexus concept in Minority Report.
By comparison, the R8's Iron Man role was the beginning of a role for the model. Soon after Stark was seen on the car, the R8 was showing up in TV shows and movies like NCIS, The Mentalist, Date Night, Surrogates and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It was a real car whose halo effect washed over the entire Audi lineup.
Speaking of Transformers, this "real car" importance is one Mercedes also seems to understand. For the latest installment of the series, Dark of the Moon, Mercedes hit the screen with its awesome Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, nearly upstaging its Victoria's Secret model co-star. Again, it's a real car that you can buy right now (but probably not).
The opportunity afforded to automakers by a high-profile tie-in and placement is more complex than just creating a temporary buzz. Practiced most successfully, auto product placement works best when its done with a highly characteristic new model that plays a major role and that's available in the immediate future. Examples include not just the R8 and the SLS AMG, but also the wildly successful Dodge Charger placement in Fast Five and the king of all auto placements, James Bond's BMW Z3.
Again, the RDX may be a car you wouldn't mind driving, but it, and its role, doesn't inspire heroism.
In practice, Acura's dilemma can be best illustrated in its tie-in marketing. For both Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Audi was able to fill its tie-in websites and video commercials with its premier product, the R8.
Meanwhile, Acura's Avengers website is all about the RDX, never once mentioning the NSX everyone is talking about.