When mom, dad and the kids drive to the neighborhood theater to see "Days of Thunder" this summer, they may be surprised to discover that the family car has a starring role.
The Chevrolet Lumina, the transportation of choice for many people whose favorite option is a child safety seat, turns up as Tom Cruise's howling monster of a race car in the film, complete with stickers on its neon-green body armor promoting auto parts, not theme parks.
This may strike some as an odd way to promote a car that was introduced as a competitor for the conservative Ford Taurus last year. But Chevrolet hopes the entire Lumina line--which includes a sedan, a coupe and a van--will benefit from the "Days of Thunder" connection.
Chevrolet dealerships are bedecked in "Days of Thunder" banners, and shoppers are being offered special incentives on the sportiest version of the Lumina, the Euro model. The $50-million promotional effort by the auto maker and other sponsors even includes a shopping mall tour featuring a replica of Cruise's car.
"What we are looking for is lots of exposure for the Lumina," said Chevrolet spokesman Dan Hubbert. "This is another way of generating some excitement for the product."
Hubbert said it's too early to tell whether the campaign will power Lumina into the winner's circle. Other cars have benefited from favorable film and television exposure, including the Pontiac Trans Am in "Knight Rider," the Pontiac Firebird in "Smokey and the Bandit" and the Ford Mustang in "Bullitt." But dealers said "Days of Thunder," released June 27 and doing less business than expected, has had little impact on Lumina sales so far.
At Kramer Chevrolet in Santa Monica, Claud Ellard is still waiting for the race to begin. "In our particular store, there's been no reaction," Ellard said recently.
Tracy Browne, sales manager at Nugent Chevrolet, said most Lumina enthusiasts are in the 30-year-old to 40-year-old range, hardly the speedster crowd.
At Daniel Chevrolet in Marina del Rey, however, sales manager Michael Borden said growing numbers of people, fresh from seeing "Days of Thunder," are taking a look at the Lumina, especially the red or black Euro models that include a spoiler. But Borden added that many customers remain confused about the nature of the automobile.
"The MPV (mini-van) model is our best seller," Borden said. "But interest in the coupe is building through the movie. They probably should have named the van something else."
Marketing and automobile experts agree that the Lumina line lacks a clear identity. Early promotional campaigns were squarely aimed at the family market. The Lumina sedan was named the "official car" of Disney World's Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Florida, and one television commercial even showed Disney cartoon characters parading around the auto.
Chevrolet branched out by introducing a sportier two-door model and by placing the Lumina name on its version of General Motors' futuristic-looking mini-vans. Lumina took on yet another identity when it was recently refashioned as Chevrolet's entry in NASCAR competitions. The souped-up Lumina has thus far won about 44% of the races it has entered, Chevrolet says.
One sponsor of Lumina racers, J. R. Hendrick III, is a friend of actor Cruise. And it was the two of them who reportedly persuaded Paramount to use the Lumina in "Days of Thunder." Chevrolet General Manager J. C. Perkins has boasted that the movie identifies Chevrolet as a winner.
But Jon Lowell, a senior editor at Ward's Automotive Reports in Detroit, said the marketing strategy makes no sense.
"What's particularly bizarre about using the Lumina in 'Days of Thunder' is that the cars on-screen are rear-wheel-drives powered by a V8 engine, neither of which is available on the showroom floor," he said. "This is a family sedan."
Car & Driver magazine last year noted that even the sportiest V6-model Lumina took 10.5 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour, not exactly race car speeds. "Almost everything about it is average," Car & Driver concluded.
Statistics compiled by Chevrolet for the first half of the year show that the four-door sedan, the model that most appeals to families, has dominated Lumina sales, accounting for 56%. The two-door Euro made up only 15% of the car's business.
The basic model sells for about $15,000. Ward's reported that the Lumina was the seventh-most-popular car sold in America during the first half of the year. But it still ranked behind two other Chevrolets, the Corsica-Beretta and the Cavalier.
Jeffrey B. Hirsch of Hirsch Marketing in Venice said the "Days of Thunder" tie-in could actually hurt the car. "The Lumina is not the same thing to all people, so there's some potential for confusion," he said. "Is this a family car or what? People may start to ask: 'What are we supposed to be doing with this car?' "
Frank Devaney, an executive with public relations firm Rogers & Cowan who specializes in car placements in films and television shows, agreed that the showroom Lumina may not live up to expectations, but said the car could still benefit from the association with Cruise. "People really do emulate their favorite stars," Devaney said. "And many of them will want to be like Cruise."
Another placement specialist, Jim Hillson of Phase One, said any attention-grabbing device may prove helpful today. "It's a way to get something distinctive going in a market that is so cluttered it's hard to break anything through," Hillson said.