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.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
This isn’t the most notable illustration of the government’s space exploration arm’s omnipresence throughout Dark of the Moon, but we may as well get it out of the way early. Considering it’s an entire movie about what happened after the cameras were shut off on the first moon landing, it’s more surprising that NASA isn’t all over every frame, if anything.
Even the fridges are branded? Christ, Bay.
The official tracksuit of European pimps. And, in this case, the two characters you least expected to keep hanging around by a third installment.
1972 Datsun 510
Seriously, the “crappy” versions of Sam’s car are always a lot more righteously badass. What gives?
This Year’s Models, Part Deux
The cars continue to become more diverse with each movie. Here you get a Mercedes-Benz, a Ferrari, and mods of a Corvette and a Stingray all at once.
This is right around the point in the series at which the “logo facing the shot” business starts to get really excessive.
Knowing which tools are used to work on the Autobots between battles is basically the Transformers equivalent of “midichlorians.”
This shot pans over this desk, centering that monitor, for several uninterrupted seconds of screen time.
It’s kind of a surprise it took until the third movie for Apple to join in the fun, honestly.
Tons of vintage stuff
“Michael, we can’t just put every logo in the same scene. It’s tacky.”
“:blows rail: FUCK IT, RUN ‘EM ALL. WE’LL CALL IT VINTAGE.”
Why stop at selling shit people can actually go out and buy when you can just as easily sell screen time to aerospace companies as well?
2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
At one point, this luxe Mercedes is used to abduct a Victoria’s Secret model, making it Bay’s dream car.
Dark of the Moon saw Bay expand his branding ambitions beyond domestic borders, starting with the first awkward ad placement for Shuhua milk, a Chinese product not frequently found in American stores.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 6LE
It’s like this thing came off a truck and had never been driven on a street before this shot or something.
The O’Reilly Factor
hahahahahahahaha fuck this guy
Though it’s worth mentioning: between the fetishism of the military, the overdose of gearhead machismo, the fact that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is physically described like a car earlier in this same movie, this bullshit, and some creative manipulations of the Chicago skyline that we’ll get to shortly, it’s not much of a jump to assume that Michael Bay is probably as red-blooded a Trump guy as there’s ever been.
You can almost feel the soullessness radiating off the screen. There’s still around an hour of this left. And we’re not even to the fourth movie yet.
Honest question: does this work? Like, does somebody sitting in a movie theater watch this robot battle and go, “Fuck, I need to replace my tires! Whatever brand will I choose?” And does this color-corrected background ad then answer that question? Does that person realize that they want their whole car to look like a Transformer? If they’re going to shill incorrigibly, it’s a valid query.
Oh, tuck in, this gets a lot worse in the next movie.
Here lies Irony
Born: the start of time
Irony was a fun concept that was brought to its savage and untimely end by Michael Bay branding all of the garbage trucks in his garbage movie and its following installment. It is survived by Twitter and Lil’ B.
Voss Artesian Water
Even drinking water isn’t safe from the violent clutches of capitalism in Bay’s world.
We’re missing a 12-pundit panel on the left and a screaming, red-faced white dude on the right.
A Brief Interlude, To Address Some Nonsense
With CoS being a Chicago-based outlet and all, we’re pretty familiar with our own skyline. Most of us commute through and around some of these buildings on a daily basis. And yet, Bay somehow found the one angle at which he could view the city in which Trump Tower is taller than the Willis. C’mon, dude. It’s bad enough we have the sitting President’s giant phallus overlooking the river as it is.
First off, the prevalence of Nokia phones by 2011 in this film’s world would be charming if it weren’t so jarringly off. Second, there’s a lot of talk/usage of Trump Tower in this movie. More than any one movie needs.
1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS
If you’re going to take a forlorn drive through an apocalyptic warzone rife with gross 9/11 imagery, do it in style.
Here’s a twofer: not only is Leadfoot covered in Target logos, one of which becomes a codpiece when he assumes robot form, but he’s just one of three stock car Transformers based on a real-life racer’s car as well. Also: remember this car. It’ll be important again in a second.
All this destruction and this brightly painted newspaper kiosk is just a little bit dirty. Remarkable stuff.
(Also, check out the low-key Pepsi ad in the back. There are a few of those throughout the series.)
Lots of Stuff
Five ads just in this one still, and that’s not even accounting for all of the racing tags. Good god, Bay.
For when the robopocalypse is coming and you need to take some of the edge off.
In compiling this piece, I often erred on the side of not counting an ad placement that whips by so quickly the eye can barely register it. But even as most of the film’s primary cast is sliding down the floor of a half-collapsed skyscraper, there are so many of these FedEx logos that we can only call it a deliberate subliminal choice designed to catch the eye as the film moves along.
Not even in the grim hellscape of the film’s final third can Bay resist his most natural urges.