March 3, 2015

Fifty Shades of Product Placement

“Fifty Shades of Grey” has sold 30 million copies in English alone. The movie, which premiered on Valentine’s Day 2015, set records domestically and internationally. Throughout the book series, there are numerous references to Audi, providing free advertising for the luxury vehicle powerhouse. Audi told AdAge that it never paid any money to get its brand in the book, but, now that the handcuffs and whips have hit the big screen, Audi has capitalized. Although Audi cannot directly pinpoint causality between the books and its increased sales, the company has argued that there is a correlation between being mentioned in the book series and their sales uptick. “Fifty Shades” was published in 2011 and the second and third novels in the series were published in 2012. Also in 2012, Audi set an all-time U.S. July sales record with a 28% increase (an increase of roughly 11,707 vehicles).

Is Audi’s success because of “Fifty Shades of Grey?” Or did “Fifty Shades” author E.L. James write the car brand into her book because she saw it as a staple of the luxury car world? AdAge writer Rupal Parekh argued that Audi’s success post-“Fifty Shades” is merely coincidental, and Audi’s brand and reputation are the reason behind E.L. James’s choice to include it. “In a rare instance, it was a totally organic branded-placement that came about merely because Audi stayed true to its brand positioning as the high-end, luxury car of choice for users who want both design and performance,” Parekh wrote.

Parekh’s AdAge article also quotes Loren Angelo, general manager of brand communications for Audi. “As Audi continues to generate momentum in the U.S. market, we’re seeing our products utilized more and more within popular culture,” Angelo said. “Those organic results are always a sign that a brand is generating real cultural relevance.” In terms of “real cultural relevance,” Audi was not going to allow its organic brand placement to be its only touch point with the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series. Audi saw an opportunity to extend itself even further into pop culture by soliciting the help of an SNL star to create an advertisement parody of one of the scenes from “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Audi’s new ad, starring Saturday Night Live’s Vanessa Bayer, spoofs the “elevator scene.” In the ad, Bayer satirized the steamy action that takes place between the book/movie’s two protagonists in an elevator. Bayer hits on random strangers in an elevator using various tactics, each more absurd and silly than the last. Eventually, she tries to convince a man to hand over the keys to his Audi, crying out “But Anastasia got one!” (Anastasia is the main character in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”)

Audi has found success in its brand, and has become a symbol of style and popular culture. This is clearly evident in its numerous awards. It also is the reason why Vanessa Bayer agreed to bother strangers in an elevator, and why E.L. James saw Audi as the prime brand to convey luxury and power.