In this fall's TV season, a secret agent speeds around in a Chevrolet Camaro, a man tries to save the world with the help of a Dodge Ram pickup, and a famous talking car returns to the streets in the form of a Ford Mustang.
With auto sales at 15-year lows and traditional TV advertising less appealing than it used to be, automakers are hoping such starring roles for key vehicles will boost interest in — and sales of — their products.
The idea is to grab the attention of consumers without being too obvious, while also creating a positive image for the automaker, said Kelly O'Keefe, executive education director at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, a graduate advertising program.
When done effectively, O'Keefe said, the practice has been shown to boost sales, and it can be very affordable for companies, which often can get their products placed just by providing them for free.
While product placement has become more popular in recent years because people are using digital video recorders to skip commercials, O'Keefe said the automotive industry's use of it is a good example of how the practice can take marketing a step further than a traditional 30-second spot.
"It's not just a byproduct of the DVR system, it also puts the product into a different context than an ad," O'Keefe said. "It's something that complements it."
It was that thinking that motivated General Motors Corp. to place two of its newest vehicles in NBC's new drama "My Own Worst Enemy," which premieres Monday night.
The show's central character, played by actor Christian Slater, has two different personalities. There's Henry, a suburban dad who drives GM's recently launched family-oriented Traverse crossover. Then there's Edward, a secret agent who speeds around in the new version of GM's Camaro sports car set to go on sale early next year.
"When you're integrated into a program, your product adds a presence and becomes a character in a way," said Dino Bernacchi, GM's director of marketing and branded entertainment.
The GM vehicles' starring roles are part of a wide-ranging marketing agreement that also ties in traditional TV commercials, a presence on the network's Web site and other promotions, Bernacchi said.
"The ads work harder and better when we get it working all together," he said. "It's not just that we have the vehicles placed there, there's a dialogue with the consumer through the show."
Chrysler LLC is focusing its TV marketing efforts on the its new 2009 Ram pickup set to launch this month. The truck will be featured in this season of Fox's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." It's part of a marketing package that pulls together custom-made one-minute commercials, online promotions and a truck giveaway.
The Ram also is being promoted through NBC's "America's Toughest Jobs" reality show, and with truck giveaways and funny 30-second vignettes during the network's Thursday night lineup.
Besides the obvious short-term sales benefits, the integration of a vehicle into a TV show can turn it into a pop culture icon that remains long after the shows go off the air and the cars stop coming off the assembly lines.
The Ford Torino will always be tied to the 1970s TV show "Starsky and Hutch," while the General Lee, a bright orange Dodge Charger, is one of the most memorable parts of "The Dukes of Hazzard," which aired in the '70s and '80s.
Few images have endured longer in TV and movies than that of the Jeep, which was developed for use by the Army in the early 1940s and is now a Chrysler brand.
Versions of the Jeep have been the vehicle of choice for characters ranging from soldiers in World War II movies to the resourceful secret agent title character of the 1980s TV show "MacGyver."
In the 2005 action adventure film "Sahara," Jeep Wranglers were used in chase scenes across the fabled desert, which Susan Thomson, director of media for Chrysler, credits with renewing interest in the model in recent years.
KITT is back, as a Mustang
Arguably, one of the most legendary vehicles in TV history is the Pontiac Trans Am from the 1980s series "Knight Rider." The talking car known as KITT returned to TV this fall as part of a new version of the show on NBC, but this time in the form of a Ford Shelby Mustang.
Bernacchi said NBC approached GM about providing a new vehicle to play KITT, but with Trans Ams long gone from the automaker's vehicle lineup, GM officials believed they couldn't do the fans of the original KITT justice.
"I think it's very difficult for anybody to walk in those shoes when it's not a Pontiac Trans Am," he said.
Bob Witter, Ford's Beverly Hills, Calif.-based brand entertainment manager, said Ford thought enough time has passed since the original "Knight Rider" to allow the Mustang to play the role of the new KITT.
The Mustang is an American icon in its own right, Witter said, perhaps most famously serving as Steve McQueen's wheels in the 1968 film "Bullitt."
"For us, this is the right kind of promotion," Witter said. "It's a cool, hip show that's targeted toward young people."
The automaker also has deals that place its vehicles in ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and Fox's "Fringe."
O'Keefe said the exposure the Mustang gets from "Knight Rider" could go a long way toward building the automaker's image.
"To put it in a context where people are going to see it a lot and talk about it a lot could be good for them," he said.
"At the end of the day, they still need to sell cars, and not just 500-horsepower Shelbys, but what this does is create the image that Ford's getting better."
NBC is owned by General Electric Co., Fox is a unit of News Corp., and ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.