Harley-Davidson Takes a Ride With the Avengers

Scott Rousseau
by Scott Rousseau

H-D talks product placement strategy in the new action blockbuster film Avengers: Age of Ultron

Smash! Boom! Bam!

Chances are you’ve seen one of Marvel Comics’ franchised films, featuring such prolific superheroes as Captain America, Iron Man, Thor or the Hulk, and you know that action is the centerpiece of these strato-budget blockbuster films. What you might not know is that anytime ol’ Cap or one of his buddies wheelies across the silver screen, they are riding a Harley-Davidson.

The Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle hangs out on the red carpet that blanketed Hollywood Boulevard during the premiere of Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the film the Live Wire makes a dramatic appearance by leaping out of Iron Man’s Quinjet attack aircraft.

That’s certainly the case in Marvel’s latest installment, Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which Captain America and Black Widow take on the bad guys aboard two very different Harley-Davidson products. Captain America prefers the Harley-Davidson Street 750 for its excellent handling in the woods and its ability to saw through an enemy jeep like a hot knife through butter, while Black Widow prefers Harley’s stealthy LiveWire prototype electric motorcycle when she leaps from Iron Man’s Quinjet attack aircraft to wreak havoc on the bad dudes.

But upon taking Harley-Davidson up on its invitation to the premier of Avengers: Age of Ultron at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on April 13, we learned what we already knew: For all its mind-blowing action, Avengers: Age of Ultron won’t be mistaken for Easy Rider, Mission Impossible 2 or any other celluloid chronicle where the motorcycle plays a prominent role in the film. It isn’t for lack of effort. Safe to say that Harley has poured a tremendous amount of marketing effort and money into the Marvel franchise. That much was clear right from get-go at the Dolby Theater, as the Motor Company’s fabled bar and shield joined that of German auto manufacturer Audi and other corporate sponsors on the red carpet backdrop where it most likely be seen in every publicity photo taken of the film’s all-star cast at the gala event.

All of that effort nets about 4 minutes of actual on-screen time for Harley products in this over-the-top action thriller, though, and that’s just fine, according to Dino Bernacchi, Harley-Davidson’s U.S. marketing director. As long as the Avengers continue to kick ass on screen, so will Harley-Davidson. It’s all part of the plan.

“We’ve already been a part of Marvel for the past five films, starting with Captain America,” Bernacchi told Motorcycle.com at the premiere. “The reason we were is because back in 1945, when Captain America was originally created, in the original comic books they actually illustrated him on a WLA Harley-Davidson. So, knowing that he has been an authentic part of the beginning, we’ve been there with him the whole time. So when they did the original Captain America [film] they called us and said, ‘Hey, can you help us identify where we can get some 1945 motorcycles?’ Well, there weren’t any around, so we helped build them [using modified Cross Bones models]. This is the fifth film that we have been a part of, so I would tell Harley fans – and actually non-Harley fans because there are so many individuals who experience Harley for the first time in a film like this – that the excitement, the performance, the adrenaline and the action that you get with such a diverse portfolio from our Street 750 to Project LiveWire, can be experienced on a Harley-Davidson.”

Actor Scarlett Johansson attends the premiere for Avengers: Age of Ultron at the Dolby Theatre. Johansson plays Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, the character who rides Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire electric motorcycle in the film.

Project LiveWire’s cover was actually blown when riding action shots of Scarlett Johansson’s character, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, were released during the filming of the movie. The strange and exciting sportbike with the Harley-Davidson logo caught the attention of the motorcycling press and generated added buzz for both the Harley-Davidson and Marvel brands. Winning!

“That is the next generation of motorcycles,” Bernacchi says of Project Live Wire. Although just when that generation will become a production reality remains to be seen, at least it is a real motorcycle, not some fictitious figment of computer animation.

“Actually, when we were on set, someone said, ‘In the world of make-believe, with Tony Stark and all of these CG-futuristic films with all of these futuristic, innovative contraptions, there is actually one thing in this film that’s innovative, futuristic and real, and that is Project Live Wire,” Bernacchi says. “It’s pretty incredible.”

But one might easily question the marketing strategy of talking up two motorcycles that receive only a fraction of total exposure in a film that runs about 142 minutes – and even less wherein the Harley-Davidson logo is actually discernible on their fuel tanks. Without triggering the spoiler alert, it is also fair to say that both bikes also suffer premature ends during the wild action sequences in which they play a part – we hope that superheroes carry adequate insurance. Bernacchi counters that notion by stating that time on camera isn’t as important as the overall partnership, the golden opportunity to be involved in such a blockbuster franchise.

Captain America abandons is usual Harley-Davidson WLA and instead rides this Harley-Davidson Street 750 in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

“The wonderful thing about these films is the marketing machine that they become, and it gives us the opportunity to talk about the film and really help proliferate what the message is going to be out there,” Bernacchi says. And point taken, especially when that opportunity links Harley with the vast entity that is Marvel Comics. With the first Avengers movie firmly among the top-10 highest grossing films of all time, there’s little chance that Avenger: Age of Ultron will be the box office turd that The Lone Ranger was, the latter an action film with which Kawasaki entered a partnership to market its Teryx4 UTV.

Actor Chris Evans plays the role of Captain America in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain America and his trusty Street 750 make their appearance early in the fast-paced action thriller.

Still, the Avengers franchise is far less bike-centric than most motorcycle fans might hope for, and it isn’t even in the same league as the recently completed FX Network cable television series, Sons of Anarchy, when you consider time on screen. In that outrageously popular series, which enjoyed a 7-year run, the Harley brand was almost as much of a character as the actors – for better or worse.

“They are very different,” Bernacchi agrees. “For seven incredible seasons, we went on this journey with SoA, and it has this dedicated, loyal following. We got a lot of great exposure from that series, but when you look at this film and that series, what you see is that Harley-Davidson has been out there in full force, trying to become culturally relevant to a whole new generation and audience. While we are already the number-one-selling motorcycle manufacturer among young adults, women, African-Americans and Hispanics, our job is to grow the sport. With that, you have to have the right partners and the right properties. You’re right, the exposure time [in Avengers: Age of Ultron] is far less, but there are millions of people around the world who are going to see this film and are going to notice the Harley-Davidson product.

Bernacchi says there a couple ways that Harley-Davidson has been gauging its success with Marvel.

“One, as we have been doing more and more of this, we have had more and more people calling us and wanting our products in feature films, in television series and in other bodies of entertainment,” he says. “They are seeking us out, and probably now more than ever, and that really makes a statement by itself. The other thing is that we do promotions and activations, and this film has already become the most successful promotion and activation we have done in terms of generating leads through Marvel, and it is just getting started. I think that really talks about the scale and the size of what this film is going to be. The wonderful thing is that we get to be a part of it.”

Now if the Motor Company could only get the Sith to ride Harleys in the upcoming Star Wars films, it might have the best of both worlds.

Scott Rousseau
Scott Rousseau

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