Pontiac Aims Cars at Avatars

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While automakers are fighting like mad to sell cars in the real world, General Motors' (GM) Pontiac division has found a way to rev up excitement among residents of the virtual world.

Pontiac unveiled its Motorati Island virtual simulation in November, which boasts a virtual dealership where Second Life residents can purchase virtual, customizable versions of new Pontiac offerings such as the Solstice GXP. The automaker also offers a Pontiac Garage music stage for in-world music performances.

Second Life, the 3-D virtual environment created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, serves as a home for both individual users and companies looking to socialize and sell their goods.

Corporations such as Dell (DELL), Cisco (CSCO) and IBM (IBM) are making a big push to gain traction in the burgeoning world. Automaker Toyota (TM) has set up shop within Second Life, as well.

Since its unveiling in November, Pontiac's virtual destination has seen a total of 100,000 visits by more than 22,000 unique residents. The automaker sold more than 250 virtual versions of its Solstice GXP autos, and the Internet counterpart, Motoratilife.com, had nearly 1 million Web hits.

However, the new additions to the simulation have been the major draw. On Friday, residents of Second Life were treated to a grand opening event for 25 virtual entrepreneurs and artists who have helped develop the virtual land.

In late 2006, Pontiac began giving away land grants to interested residents, and a variety of projects have been developed for residents to use. Among the finished developments were simulators that allow drivers to drive into walking zombies, a nightclub that lets real DJs spin music for more than 20 hours a week, a mountaintop race and a drag strip for hot rods.

"The cool part of Pontiac Motorati Island is it's a place for Second Life car enthusiasts that was created by them," said Mark-Hans Richer, marketing director at Pontiac, in a written statement. "From races to hip nightclub events, and even a Jay-Z concert, Pontiac Motorati Island has already seen some exciting activity."

Pontiac's use of the Internet as a marketing tool extends beyond Second Life and Motoratilife.com to News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace.com. The automaker unveiled "Friends with Benefits" on Wednesday, an initiative that will reward members of the MySpace community for their Pontiac G5 purchases with cash benefits up to $1,000.

"We wanted to try something completely different for Pontiac and use a similar method to how we've approached our other marketing initiatives -- empower the users of MySpace to engage each other rather than push information at them," said Richer. "The 'Friends With Benefits' effort is a beta test, which allows MySpace users to comment on the types of products they want to buy and rewards them for their purchases."

Pontiac's advertising agency, Leo Burnett Detroit, has been leading each project, collaborating with the entertainment agency Campfire. Additional partners helping execute the campaign are Second Life developers Millions of Us and Web developers Domani Studios.

"Our hope is to unleash the community's passion for cars," said Tor Myhren, executive vice president with Leo Burnett Detroit, in a statement. "If an idea relates to any aspect of car culture, we intend to give the community the means to make it happen."

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