Ford Motor Co.’s long association with the James Bond franchise, including a cameo by its restyled European Ka microcar in the latest film “Quantum of Solace,” not only is a marketing ploy but also an indicator of a larger product-placement trend taking place in the auto industry.

Although auto makers’ product placement in movies and TV shows is nothing new, the practice is accelerating, growing 33.7% in 2007 and outpacing a 25.8% increase in Internet advertising, says Leo Kivijarv, vice president of research, PQ Media LLC, a Stamford, CT-based custom-media research firm.

“A lot of brands have opened up offices in Southern California near studios, so they can pitch ideas (for product placement),” he tells Ward’s.

In 2007, overall product-placement spending totaled $2.9 billion in the U.S., while worldwide the number swelled to $4.3 billion, Kivijarv says, noting the automotive and clothing industries account for the biggest chunk.

In “Quantum of Solace,” set to debut in the U.S. Nov. 14, the Ka won’t be driven by Bond, but rather by the new “Bond girl,” Olga Kurylenko. The Ukrainian-born actress and model plays the role of Camille, who possesses an “independent spirit, sense of adventure, bravery, style and beauty,” Ford says.

The attributes of Kurylenko’s character played a large part in Ford’s decision to place the Ka in the new movie, says Joanne Sheehan, head of communications planning for Ford of Europe.

“The Bond girl tied in beautifully with women buying their first car and making (that) big-purchase decision,” she tells Ward’s. “She tied in well with how we’re going to position the car.”

Ford has enjoyed a long relationship with the Bond franchise, having featured vehicles in several movies, Sheehan says, which allows the auto maker early access to scripts in order to decide whether one of its vehicles would fit.

Throwing vehicles scattershot into a movie because you can is not the wisest decision, as Ford learned in the 2002 Bond movie “Die Another Day,” Kivijarv says. “There were so many (Ford products), there was a backlash (of criticism) that it was an advertising movie.”

The film featured a Jaguar XKR; Land Rover Range Rover; Volvo S60 and S80; Ford StreetKa and Aston Martin V12 Vanquish; plus two classic cars, the Ford Fairlane and Ford GT. Since then, Ford has sold its Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd., Jaguar Cars and Land Rover subsidiaries.

Media speculation varies on whether Ford pays to have its vehicles used in Bond films. But Sheehan says she can “categorically confirm that (such reports) are not true.”

“We advertise the products (that appear) in the movie, but we do it using the theme of James Bond, and we agree to carry the in-cinema date,” she says.

Ford’s choice of the European Ka appears odd in the current Bond movie, as the vehicle is not available in North America. Could it be an attempt to gauge U.S. consumers’ acceptance of such a small vehicle?

“Absolutely,” says Sheehan. “It’s a great platform to see the product and a great way to gauge the reaction to the product. People in the U.S. and across the globe are looking to downsize, and Ford has got a good lineup of small cars coming out of Europe. Anything is possible. But we haven’t confirmed what products will go to which market.”

While product placement in movies and TV is becoming common practice, many auto makers are finding it difficult to gauge its effectiveness.

Frank Zazza, CEO of iTVX, which measures branded entertainment, says there are ways to measure the success of product placements. His firm counts Ford, as well as Toyota Motor Corp., Chrysler LLC and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. among its clients.

Zazza says he built his reputation working on some of the most famous product placements in history, including the use of Reese’s Pieces in the movie “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.” He also has placed products in numerous episodes of the TV sitcom “Seinfeld.”

“The deals of today are huge; they’re multimillion,” Zazza says. “But they’re able to build brand image, and that’s the most important part.”

Product placement also helps boost sales, as was the case with Reese’s Pieces candy, which saw sales spike 70% after the movie was released. BMW AG enjoyed a similar gain when its Z3 roadster appeared in the 1996 Bond film “Golden Eye.”

Much of the success resulted from a promotion BMW launched in the U.S. in conjunction with the summer 1996 release of the movie, Zazza says.

“(The auto maker) invited BMW owners to the premier of the movie the day before it was released to the public, and after the screening they had Z3s parked outside. That was brilliant.”

The promotion drove consumers into showrooms, and although not everyone left with a Z3, BMW’s U.S. sales rose from 8,341 in April to 10,774 in July of that year, Ward’s data shows.

The trend in automotive product-placement likely will continue to grow, largely because consumers are tuning out traditional advertising, due to what Zazza refers to as the “cognitive rejection factor.”

“The retention of the 30-second commercial is going down; there’s just so much clutter,” he says. “There are some memorable (commercials) out there. But most are hard to distinguish, especially when there are three to four car commercials in one break.”

Indeed, many advertisers now are monitoring commercial ratings, instead of traditional program ratings, Zazza says.

In addition to working on a more subtle level than traditional advertising methods, product placement also pays dividends over a longer period.

“If the movie is on DVD, (product placement) has a perpetual lifecycle,” Zazza says. “It just goes on and on.”

bpope@wardsauto.com