A masterful PR campaign: the links between Hollywood, luxury cars and the arms industry

by | Sep 25, 2020 | Business, Comment Analysis

Luxury cars are inextricably linked with the weapons industry. When James Bond saves the world in his faithful Aston Martin he is glamourising the very industry he is ostensibly trying to defeat. Tasha May reports.

As far as product placement goes, it’s just a thinly veiled reference. But it is ironic.

The central conceit of Christopher Nolan’s latest spy thriller Tenet revolves around the evils of weaponry and “trying to prevent World War III”, as one character puts it. The movie has some showstopping action scenes, chief among them a car chase in which a crash is reversed in time, with shards of glass and a licence plate picking themselves off the bitumen. Amid the spectacular optics of the sequence, it’s easy to miss the name that appears on the car: Saab.

Although better known for making cars, Saab’s weapons manufacturing arm comprises 85% of the company’s total sales. And with $3.2 billion from weapons sales in 2018, Saab ranks 30th in the Top 100 Arms-Producing and Military Services Companies, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In 1989 Saab Automobile separated from its arms manufacturing branch to become its own company, co-owned and eventually bought out by General Motors. General Motors also has an extensive history in arms manufacturing.

Saab is not alone in the manufacture, currently or previously, of both luxury cars and weapons. Car manufacturers Rolls Royce and Mitsubishi join Saab on SIPRI’s Top 100 Arms-Producing and Military Services Companies, 2018, coming in at number 20 and 25 respectively.

Cultivating a positive image

Cars and weapons form an inextricable nexus, lying as they do at the root of industrial production. Few people know this. This is deliberate: the luxury car industry has put considerable effort into cultivating a positive image – and where better to do that than in Hollywood.

Luxury cars and stopping arms dealers are both clichés of the action film. The best-known franchise for exploiting these tropes is, of course, James Bond. Rolls Royce has featured in Bond movies from such early classics as Goldfinger through to the most recent release Spectre. In honour of the next instalment in the Bond franchise, Aston Martin is offering a limited edition release of the DB5 from Goldfinger, replete with simulated twin front machine guns and tyre slasher.

Aston Martin DB5

Aston Martin DB5: Photo: Aleks Marinkovic (Unsplash)

The familiarity of cliché flicks the brain to auto-pilot. This allows for an escape into fantasy, yet it also switches off our critical faculties. Nolan might have dressed up the film with time travel, but Tenet fits the James Bond mould with its flashy cars and plot revolving around an arms dealer trying to blow up the world.

It is ironic that Nolan’s movie participates in this cliché, given the film flaunts its self-reflexivity: a claim to an awareness of its own artificial workings. The central character is known only as “The Protagonist”. The film plays on the obscurity of its plot with dialogue discussing time travel in a way that deliberately appeases the audience’s own confusion: “Don’t try to understand, just feel it.” Nolan’s self-reflexivity pretends to knowingness of a world outside its own fictive space, but his uncritical use of the arms-dealer/luxury-car cliché betrays Nolan’s lack of awareness.

Glamourising arms industry

So how did action heroes come to save the world driving around in luxury cars, glamourising and promoting the very industry they are ostensibly trying to defeat?

Action movies are expensive. Tenet cost roughly US$200 million; Spectre US$300 million. To finance their grand budgets, Bond films are notorious for branded content. While no exact figure has been disclosed for Spectre not only featuring Rolls Royce on the screen, but actor Daniel Craig announcing the car’s model as it pulls up, it is safe to assume the $48 million worth of cars blown up in production did not come out of the film’s pocket. There are no media releases to indicate whether Saab paid for product placement in Tenet as part of the brand’s comeback. Regardless, while Saab enthusiasts celebrate Tenet as the coming of “Saab 9-5NG’s Afterlife”, Nolan’s film does not evoke a ghost, but a brand name still alive and kicking in its weapon sales.

Action movies rely on a clear demarcation of good guys fighting bad guys, but where does this leave audiences when they leave the cinema? There is an association of luxury cars with “the good guys” in film, when in real life these brands should be synonymous with the weapons manufacturers that they are.

Saab, alongside British Aerospace Engineering (BAE), notoriously bribed its way to secure a $10 billion tender from the African National Congress (ANC) for Jet Fighter Trainers. Former ANC parliamentarian and whistle-blower Andrew Feinstein described it as a move that spent “scarce public resources on this weaponry that we didn’t need, rather than provide lifesaving medication to our own citizens” during the AIDS epidemic.

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Rolls Royce closed a four-year deal with Saudi Arabia to maintain engines powering the Royal Saudi Air Force fleet of Tornado combat aircraft between 2013 and 2017: squarely within the timeframe of the Yemen War. Rolls Royce staff continue to maintain jet engines inside Saudi Arabia, thereby serving to prolong the war in Yemen, currently the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The public has a morbid fascination with translating the fictional weaponry shown on the big screen into real life. This ignores the reality of how Western arms manufacturers provide the means through which violent regimes around the world maintain their power.

Aston Martin might not have an arms manufacturing branch, but its relationship with weaponry is personified by the DB5’s simulated gadgets, and starts to resemble Brad Whitaker, the arms dealer in the 1987 Bond film The Living Daylights, who lacks military experience beyond recreating battles with toy soldiers.

There is a profound imbalance between the danger of arms dealing represented in movies, with the lack of traction the real-world problem of arms sales garners in real life.

On the silver screen the threat of armaments might be merely a plot device for spectacular stunts, but explosions are happening in real time. While names such as Saab and Rolls Royce conjure up imagery of James Bond, they should remind us of Dr No or Goldfinger instead.

Andy Keough


Tasha May

Tasha May

Natasha graduated with an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Cambridge in June 2019 and is currently studying a Master of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. Natasha’s Twitter handle is @tasha_tilly


  1. Avatar

    Whilst i agree the arms business is one that lacks ethics, not just in what they sell but how they do business, you do draw a very long bow in regard to some of the supposed relationships. Perhaps some additional research on the subject matter would result in a more accurate article. Saab Automobile AB has not been a visible brand in global automotive manufacture since GM effectively killed it and sold it to Spyker in 2010. There was some production of cars in 2013 under a subsequent owners Nevs but that effectively amounts to nothing. There has been no association between Saab Automobile AB and Saab Group since GM acquired 100% control in 2000. So your mention of Saab is completely without merit.

    Rolls Royce, yet again a simple search would tell you these are not the same companies nor are they anyway related in recent times. In fact RR cars has been a wholly owned subsidiary of BMW since 1998, Rolls Royce Holding an engineering and power systems company is a completely separate entity. Though that wouldn’t t suit your narrative I guess. I read this site looking for ACCURATE and informed stories, this is a major disappointment and one clear to me only due to my knowledge of the automotive industry. I wonder what other errors appear within stories where I don’t have such insight?

    • Avatar

      Were it ever so simple.
      The article is making a wider, historical point. I too was disappointed that the focus was largely on Saab, but the compartmentalisation of a brand name into different corporate entities does not erase the history or the public associations between luxury goods (pricey cars) and military-industrial moneymaking. General Motors, Ford, Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard etc etc, to name a few American brands. Those fancy little HP scientific hand calculators that sent the slide rule obsolete were to be found in the hands of officers on Vietnam battlefields before they reached the public market.

      As we used to say, back in the 60s,
      “War’s good business.
      Invest your son”.

      Because, of course most of the punters couldn’t afford to buy stock in HP, nor can they these days.

      • Avatar


        Are we expecting to see an automobile called the Keough being manufactured soon, in Oz?

      • Avatar

        And Elon’s Cybertruck is not being pitched at military or militarised police. Splitting hairs over this or that brand does not diminish the damage being done. Like Volkswagen lithium washing its diesel fraud with the purpose built, battery powered, sexy as hell, scalextric racer on steroids. Look! Over there! A nearly naked woman! Want machine guns with your fries.

    • Elizabeth Minter

      Hi Desmo, Thanks so much for taking the time to read and reply to the article. While researching the article Tasha came across the changes in ownership you bring up, which is why she wrote it in this way: “the manufacture, currently or previously, of both luxury cars and weapons”. The changes in ownership do not alter the historical connection between the weapons and automobile industries – a connection which the movie industry never acknowledges – nor the way in which these brand names remain associated with the glamour of cars than for the weapons the same brand names create.

  2. Avatar

    Is the author making the claim that weapons cause war? Perhaps they do, but if all the weapons vanished tomorrow, antagonisms would still exist, enacted most likely with rocks and sharp sticks. But how to reach that point? Unified world government? Perhaps then the arms dealers would only be selling to the police. 10B for jet trainers is fairly small compared to our own recently expanded “defense” budget. Long-range stealth cruise missiles and F35s are so defensive after all. No-one (well, not anyone who can get onto the news broadcasts) complains about how many schools or hospitals that would buy instead, any more.

    I’m glad that Tasha enjoyed Tenet. There have been very mixed reviews, and I haven’t been game to go to a cinema yet, myself. Perhaps this review will be enough motivation to change that…

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