As you read this, Transformers: The Last Knight is careening into theaters to deliver another heaping pile of noise, clanging CGI gears, chiseled hunks, hot babes, and brand recognition to audiences around the globe. Michael Bay’s megahit franchise has managed the uncommon feat of becoming a film industry juggernaut while simultaneously turning into a punchline, an easy shorthand for intellectually bankrupt blockbuster filmmaking in the modern era.
It’s easy to turn up one’s nose at the Transformers movies; from the casual racism and sexism to the borderline-erotic obsession with shiny cars, Bay’s five movies in 10 years are basically everything a film critic hates in one easily mockable package. But each film has also become a billion-dollar industry unto itself, and like it or not, this makes them a series of films worth interrogating at greater length. Even if they’re not connecting with a lot of people at this point, they’re still connecting with a great deal more.
One of the more common refrains in talking about Bay’s exercises in bombast centers around the director’s signature penchant for flagrant advertising in his movies. Particularly in the years since The Island, Bay has become a friendly face to every brand that could possibly fold itself into one of his movies, a means of generating public recognition in one of the biggest international film franchises currently going. But it got us thinking: how bad is it, really? Is Bay’s ad placement any worse than David Fincher stuffing a garage full of Sony products in Gone Girl or any other obvious attempt to work synergy into a Hollywood film?
In short: yes. God, yes. Where other filmmakers at least attempt to slip ads past an audience, Bay prefers the method of grabbing you by the back of your head and drowning you in corporate synergy. In this spirit, we’ve decided to go ahead and catalog the most notable examples in all four previously released Transformers movies. As far as our rubric was concerned, a car on the street alone does not make a sales pitch, but anything with several consecutive seconds of screen time and a visual emphasis most certainly does. (There are a few exceptions, of course; as you’ll soon see, Bay loves few things more than subliminal advertising.)
(And before you show up in our Facebook comments all riled up: no, this isn’t a sponsored post or a stealth-sponsored post. To be as clear as can be, we’re not supporting any of this.)
The United States Military
This is the only time I’ll go for this joke, but the first two series entries particularly emphasize the hardware, grit, and indomitable power of the American military in all its forms. The first is especially pronounced about it, with Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson functioning as two of the film’s ostensible leads, the last time in the series they’d be focused upon to this degree.
Get ready, because this’ll be a series hallmark soon enough: the 2-in-1 ad placement. BRANDCEPTION.
When you’re making the cinematic equivalent of a midlife crisis, drive Porsche!
Because why should branding have to stop at things you can actually go out and buy today?
1977 Chevrolet Camaro
And now, a decade-old hot take: this is a way cooler Camaro than the one Bumblebee assimilates later in the movie.
Get it? e-Bay? We like to have fun here.
In all seriousness, though, Bay gets the triple-strike on this one: it’s a pun, an ad placement, and Shia LaBeouf even shouts out both eBay and Paypal (its payment system circa 2007) aloud about five minutes before this scene.
The fact that these silly goddamn things were ever a sign of virility will tell you everything you ever needed to know about who’s still watching these movies a decade later.
Also, for the love of Christ: please don’t bring these back ironically, America. There are some bells you can’t unring.
By far the least well-aged of all the Transformers ad buys, this portable music device hearkens back to a different time, when we had to insert physical things into other physical things like a bunch of savages.
In The Modern Age, with a filmmaker whose work leaves most viewers feeling like they could Take It or Leave It, it’s Hard to Explain how a director like Bay would Someday make billions for Paramount by selling Barely Legal girls as leads until most audiences were left asking “Is This It”.
Because the local BK is often a cultural cornerstone in the lives of high school-aged women.
If you’re going to kill a sentient robot being with any power saw, make sure it’s a DeWalt.
2006 Chevrolet Camaro
It’s actually worse in context; the above still is the result of the Camaro slowly rolling into the shot, because people love being sold shit in the middle of a film for which they paid their $9. (Oh, when seeing a movie was still a single-digit expense.)
My Little Pony
And that was the last time on public record that the show’s actual child demographic was the target audience for its plushies.
Of all the car joints in all the towns in all the world, they landed atop mine.
Pontiac Solstice GXP
Same scene, but there’s something about literally displaying a car on its own labeled shelf that warrants its own mention.
If you’re Bay, and you’re gonna push an NFL franchise, why not make it the most racist one with the owner who hates his fans the most?
(Clinton Portis was the truth, though.)
Not only is a Nokia cell phone turned into a violent robot, but there’s even a discussion about the brand’s Finnish origins while it’s happening.
For all your Decepticone needs.
To conclude our time with the first film, a trio of things that are not killer robots being turned into killer robots by the All Spark. First up, a 360, complete with the signature “power on” audio cue.
Yep, this thing becomes a Transformer just a split second after this lingering product shot.
The moment that this logo latches onto this attractive, young woman’s face is the exact moment at which “on the nose” loses all meaning.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
GMC Topkick C4500
When you’re rolling into battle, make sure you have a sturdy and trustworthy GMC on your side.
Imagine the negotiations behind having your car be represented by the Decepticons. “Yes, yes, we don’t mind if the R8 is the disguise of a space fascist; we just want to make sure the recognition is there.”
Call it a nitpick if you will, but every single one of Shia’s moving boxes are U-Haul branded. Apparently, you stop one interstellar civil war and you don’t have to move your stuff in milk crates like the rest of us plebs.
Upper left corner, you fucking deviants.
One of the funnier running bits through each of the later films, starting here, is how all military and government telecommunications are carried out through the exact same brand. Here, it’s LG.
Pretty sure the RAs would’ve had something to say about a full-service Dew machine in a dorm room. I couldn’t even have an extension cord in mine.
Also, how did it even get in there?
Also, shout-out Naruto.
When advertising also becomes a visual metaphor for ongoing plot. (Get it? She’s about to be his ex for missing this chat call, hence webex. I spent six years in film school honing this sharp criticism.)
2010 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
It’s just one guy’s opinion, but the Bumblebee cars seem to become less and less cool as they grew more aggressively sleek over time.
Answering the question “what if we started selling everything with an engine? We’d never have to stop at cars!”
“Revenge of the Fallen left me feeling like I Wanna Get Away from the theater!” — Gene Shalit, probably
Harley Davidson/two NFL teams
The rarest ad buy of all: the hat trick!
Michael Bay’s own goddamn movie
There are a few nods to other movies throughout the series that this piece ultimately omits, but Bay painting the plot of one movie over a poster for another one of his is just too rich to pass up.
This Year’s Models
Not previously noted: Sideswipe (Corvette Stingray), Jolt (Chevrolet Volt)
2008 Saturn Astra
This thing gets airlifted by a helicopter, dropped through a factory’s roof from hundreds of feet up, and doesn’t kill everybody inside of it on impact. Pretty good commercial, overall.
Bud Light Lime
It almost feels like cheating to include Times Square overall, but the Fallen’s hacked broadcast being interspersed with subliminal flashes of a sweating Bud Light Lime is too rich to leave out.
That logo comes across in higher definition than some of the robots in the giant robot movie do at times.
Stella Artois is basically the soccer of beers: treated like a highfalutin cultural deal in America, kind of a basic thing to everybody else in the world.
Go to more museums, y’all. This isn’t actually a punchline; you just should.
This wall-sized ad ended up being just the beginning of Bay’s relationship with giant cameras.
Why’s this in an American aerospace museum? Does it even matter?
The wrecking ball rigs that end up giving Devastator a pair of giant, swinging testicles about 10 seconds after this frame aren’t branded. Funny how that works out.