Reverse-engineering brand placement: H-D in Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Up

Now that the social media feed and marketing algorithms have firmly identified me as an H-D fanboy, I see lots and lots of Harley content, including this trailer for Long Way Up, a Ewan McGregor motorcycle adventure series that will soon be available on Apple TV+. After a quick search, I learned that Long Way Up is a follow-up to two similar releases–2004’s Long Way Round and 2007’s Long Way Down–both of which featured BMW motorcycles.

Although I’ve not read any official reports that H-D paid for placement and/or donated motorcycles to the project, it seems safe enough to assume there’s some kind of contractual deal with interested parties since the film currently takes up prominent space on the Motor Company’s homepage (as of 9/20).

An exercise I frequently employ in advertising classes is deconstructing messages to analyze why a company has made certain decisions when creating a strategic message. If I was writing an academic paper (like I should be doing) instead of a blog to discuss this brand placement, I’d need at least a dozen pages to parse aspects such as the use of electric motorcycles, the depictions of various cultural practices, the use of celebrity endorsement, etc., etc. However, I don’t want to bore you to tears, so I’m only going to analyze what I think is the most interesting aspect of this particular narrative: experiencing friendship through motorcycle ownership.

John Cacioppo has extensively studied loneliness in the U.S. (see this excellent piece in The Atlantic), and has noted that about half of us lament not feeling enough actual connectedness with friends, despite perceptions that social media and smartphones have made us all more connected than ever. My guess is that H-D recognized an opportunity to show how people can cultivate human connections and real-life experiences on two wheels and did what it had to do in order to put McGregor and co-star Charley Boorman on Harleys instead of BMWs for this series.

Human beings are social animals that have evolved to solve problems through cooperative action. So our brains are wired to desire deep ties with other individuals because there’s a survival advantage to having friends, especially ones who can help us meet the challenges we face in life. I suspect that’s why much of the trailer for this series focuses on McGregor’s “doubts” about being able to undertake and complete the planned journey. It creates dramatic tension because it taps deeply into the human psyche. My guess is that those challenges will be met through friendship and connection throughout the series.

H-D is fighting battles on a number of fronts at this point, not least of which is trying to develop a consumer base for the future that is vastly different from its current core customers (I’m going to write more on this in the near future). Brand placement in a series that is essentially about a couple of nice, responsible guys doing a motorcycle adventure trip represents a pretty significant shift away from the narratives of the lone wolf, partying outlaw, or total asshole that has been used to represent H-D riders since the 1960s. Changing that image and attracting new customers will be a long, uneven task, but current social and economic forces dictate a need to continue looking for insights–like the need for real connection in a culture of lonely people–to ensure the company’s relevance.

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