Hollywood Product Placement, Circa 2054


Why would an advertiser pay $5 million to put in a film a product it knows the public will never get a chance to buy? Well, ask Japanese auto maker Lexus, whose parent company, Toyota, is reported to have paid to place a snazzy, futuristic car in Steven Spielberg's upcoming Minority Report, according to several sources. Lexus helped design the vehicle for the film's take on 2054 -- a car dubbed the Mag-Lev that's part roadster, part elevator, because it can climb the sides of buildings.

The car, and a host of other brands including American Express, Reebok, and Pepsi, appear in Spielberg's film, according to Minority Report producer Bonnie Curtis. Starring Tom Cruise, it's a futuristic tale of a police "precrime" unit that can look into the future and stop lawlessness before it happens. It opens on June 21.

Advertisers play a key part of the plot, says Curtis -- and not always a flattering one. To make the film, Spielberg convened a 24-member panel of urban planners, scientists, and futurists to design a world ahead of our time. After meeting at the Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., for three days, Spielberg says the team helped him design "what the future a half-century hence would be like."

DON'T LOOK NOW. When the brave new world arrives, according to Spielberg, ads will be far more intrusive, with billboards able to identify individual consumers with scanners that read the irises of their eyes. "That enables an advertiser to call out your name, and say, 'Hey, we've got a product for you,'" says Curtis.

Did other advertisers pay for ad placements in this movie? Nobody will say. Lexus officials reveal only that they were approached by Spielberg, who drives a Lexus SUV, and agreed to help him design not only the Mag-Lev but another sleek, red, futuristic sports car. Although it's not for sale, Lexus has since featured the car at the New York auto show, and the vehicle is being aired in TV commercials and on billboards to help promote the movie.

Lexus won't confirm what it spent to make the car or how much its ads are costing. But as part of the deal, the auto maker also delivered a shiny new $62,000 Lexus SC 430 convertible to Spielberg, says Mike Wells, marketing vice-president for Lexus. "Mr. Spielberg and Tom Cruise took off in it, and we thought they'd be gone 20 minutes," he says. "They came back 45 minutes later, and they were all smiles."

FUTURE MARKET. Why would Lexus put all that money into helping Spielberg design a pair of cars that will never be sold? Explains Wells: "We wanted to show the world that Lexus as a brand will be standing tall in 50 years."

Lexus wasn't the only large advertiser to help Spielberg defray the costs of making his film, which is laden with special effects. Phonemaker Nokia spent an estimated $2 million to design the futuristic handsets that Cruise and others use in the film, according to sources. Nokia also is running print and TV commercials to promote the film and its new 9290 Communicator, a $599 phone released in May, 2002, that can send and receive images, sound, and video clips. In addition, Nokia is promoting Minority Report on its Web site, where users can see the phone it designed for the film.

Nokia, which has placed other handsets in TV's Alias and 24, and movies like Charlie's Angels and The Matrix, is well versed in the Hollywood routine. It designed five different phones for Spielberg to shoot. While each got time before the director's camera, footage of all but one futuristic flip-phone ended up on the cutting-room floor, says the spokeswoman. No word yet if it can identify and talk to users by itself. By Ron Grover in Los Angeles


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