Just as death and taxes are inescapable in life, only Cher and cockroaches could survive a nuclear winter; but who and what will survive the Zombie Apocalypse? Only the creators of “The Walking Dead” can say for sure, but as rabid fans (like me) brace for Season 4 starting Sunday, October 13, on AMC, I can report there’s just one cast member that’s certain to make it through with all faculties intact: the green Hyundai Tucson SUV that serves as the heroes’ getaway car. That’s because the Tucson, in the gutsiest product placement deal in recent memory, is the sole cast member that pays - rather than getting paid – to be on the show.
Product placement usually takes more picture-perfect, palatable forms – like Tom Cruise driving the BMW i8 in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol;” Sharon Stone rolling on a bed strewn with Bulgari jewels in “Casino;” or James Bond sipping Bollinger, his default champagne since the 60s. But Hyundai’s partnership with “The Walking Dead,” which is the highest-rated basic cable program in history and routinely draws larger audiences than network blockbusters including "The Voice" and "The Big Bang Theory," isn’t about creating a glamorous context for the brand. Rather it’s Hyundai’s way of rolling up its sleeves to fight a plague more life threatening and gruesome to automakers than flesh-eating zombies: epidemic apathy among young consumers who should be buying cars, but aren’t. As reported both in my interview with industry expert Paulo Tumminelli and author Paula Champa, interest in car ownership among Generation Y consumers aged 18 to 38 in the US and Western Europe is weakening, a trend driven by causes including increased awareness for the environment; an inability or reluctance to shoulder the expense; the migration to dense cities where driving is a nuisance; and even a spike in biking and walking instead. (For more stats and figures backing this up, check out these articles at Inc and Time magazine). Reconnecting to these consumers is what brings Hyundai to “The Walking Dead” in all its gory glory.
Because Hyundai isn't afraid to let its Tucson get dirt, blood, and zombie guts under its fingernails and become immersed in the action, its role in the show is seamless. From my own experience working on product placement deals including the Mercedes-Benz partnership with “Sex and the City: The Movie,” I know how vigorously brands strive to project an idealized onscreen image, and was curious how and why Hyundai was emboldened to take this leap of faith. Here’s the scoop from David Matathia, Director of Marketing Communications at Hyundai.
What are the objectives for Hyundai’s partnership with “The Walking Dead”?
It started with looking at Generation Y, where the American love affair with cars is really waning: they are buying cars at a slower pace than at any other time in history. So we’re looking for different avenues to form those early brand impressions with Generation Y, and while now the show has grown to truly mass appeal, its sweet spot is Generation Y with a male skew. We believed that if we could show them that we like and appreciate the same things they do, they might consider Hyundai when time comes to buy a car. That was it from the get go: getting that early brand impression and shared passion with Generation Y. It’s obviously grown beyond that, but it continues to be the bulls-eye for us.
When did Hyundai’s relationship with “The Walking Dead” begin, and how did it develop?
We ran commercials during the show’s first season in 2010, and then were approached by the network to place a vehicle in Season 2: that’s when the character of the Kiwi Green Hyundai Tucson was born. Since then it has become an integral part of the story line as the crew’s trusted getaway vehicle, helping them out of some sticky situations. By Season 3, “The Walking Dead” was on its way to becoming the highest rated basic cable program in history, and we wanted to maximize the momentum and equity we had built by taking the relationship off the television screen, and into the real world. So together with series creator Robert Kirkman, we constructed for exhibition the first “Zombie Survival Machine” using a highly modified Hyundai Elantra Coupe. Now as we begin Season 4, we took this idea one step further to create the “The Walking Dead Chop Shop” where, using an app, fans created their own virtual “Zombie Survival Machine” starting with a stock Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Santa Fe or Elantra, customizing it with thousands of different types of weaponry, armor, camouflage, paints and decals. From nearly 82,500 virtual submissions, we chose the best design and brought it from fantasy to reality, and will unveil the latest, most ultimate “Zombie Survival Machine” on October 10 at the New York Comic-con.
When did fans start to realize the Tucson was appearing in the show due to a paid endorsement?
Fans of this franchise pay very, very close attention to the details, so they picked-up on it quickly and appreciated the fact that it wasn’t egregious. We’ve got a team of what I call our “Walking Dead Gurus” who are intense fans of both the graphic novel and the show, and we check everything through them to be sure that we’re being true to the franchise, and not crossing a line that is going to alienate or make any of the fans unhappy. We really try to be complimentary and respectful of what’s going on in “The Walking Dead” universe.
Please excuse the pun, but did signing up for “The Walking Dead” feel like a “gutsy” decision? Did you have to convince some hearts and minds given that it’s a real white-knuckle ride of a show?
Yes, you definitely have to suspend disbelief a little bit. There are a lot of rules for what people are typically allowed to do with our cars in shows and across different types of media, and we’ve had some very interesting conversations with our lawyers reminding them that the show takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, so the normal rules of how things work go out the window. We still have some restrictions in terms of what can be done, but trust the folks that are developing and writing the show that the car would be treated well and have this very specific role. It was a little bit of a roll of the dice, but I don’t think we could have possibly gotten more benefit even if we’d planned it this way. One interesting phenomenon is that the car has its own Twitter handle that we did not create – a fan out there just took it upon themselves to give it a voice – and it interacts with fans of the show which is fantastic. It’s the kind of stuff that money can’t buy.
I happen to love green cars, but noticed that “Kiwi Green” has been discontinued and is no longer available on the Hyundai Tucson as featured on the show?
No, it’s not, but it was a very specific choice made by the show and not our decision. The producers are very specific about the aesthetic and they loved that color, and thought it complimented the overall palette they were working with. That’s great for us because hey, it certainly stands out, it’s not your typical color, so it gives the car a little more edge and that’s what Hyundai is all about.