Honda’s Humorous Spots Add ‘Personality’ To SUVs

The media term “roadblock” is all too literal for automotive cable advertisers, where it’s not uncommon for car ads to crowd four or even five of every six slots in a commercial pod. This week, American Honda Motor Co. breaks the first of six spots designed to break through the logjam.

Cable is a key part of Honda’s model-year 2005 ad plans, and independent agency RPA in Santa Monica, Calif., has fashioned distinct “personalities” for the automaker’s three SUVs to stand out in this ultra-competitive slice of the light-truck market, said Bill Hagelstein, RPA’s evp and COO. The campaign includes two spots for each SUV (the CR-V, Pilot and Element) and will run through next fall, when model-year 2006 begins.

Spots for the CR-V break today with “Dog Show,” a parody of the annual Westminster program which shows handlers prancing with the CR-V around the floor as the announcer calls it “an extremely versatile breed. You find them on farms, ranches … and the city.” In a beauty-contest spoof called “Pageant,” Miss Lilac parallel-parks the car on a stage before a live audience to commentator kudos.

In “Prairie Dog,” a new commercial for the Pilot that also breaks today, a man on a remote vacation sees three of the critters pop their heads out of their holes, inducing a flashback to his office co-workers emerging from their cubicles at the smell of food. He then suggests to his wife that they stay a couple more days as the voiceover says the tag, “Get as far away as you can.”

The second Pilot spot, called “Subterranean” and breaking in October, shows a family in the SUV descending so low in a parking garage, they pass stalagmites and a Gollum-like figure.

Last year, Element ran a spot that had Lego-like blocks conjoined to show the SUV’s versatile configurations. This year’s about-face includes “Stickers,” breaking in December, which strikes a poignant pose to soft guitars as two buddies collect mementos of the exotic places they’ve visited on surfing, climbing and biking adventures. “How far will it take you?” is the new tagline. “Neighbors” shows an Element driver chased through his suburban block for rides to their various outdoor activities.

Honda spent over $500 million on ads in 2003, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, and more than $100 million of that was dedicated to the Honda CR-V, Pilot and Element.

“Light trucks are a big area of opportunity,” said Tom Peyton, senior manager, national advertising. “Just over half of our unit sales this year will be light truck [which also includes the Odyssey minivan]. Suddenly, we have great interest in broad awareness.”

From 1999 to 2004, Honda’s national TV spending dropped from $140 million to about $95 million, while cable spending rose from nearly $35 million to $95 million, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus. By contrast, Toyota spent $225 million on network TV in 1999 and $260 million in 2003; its spend on cable went from less than $70 million to over $110 million in 2004. Mitsubishi, which said this year that it was cutting all of its network TV spend in favor of cable, went from $120 million in 1999 to $160 million in 2003, and its cable buy rose from under $15 million in 1999 to almost $30 million in 2003.

Combined sales of the CR-V, Element and Pilot (215,740) are up slightly so far this year, from the comparable period in 2003, but the Element, which launched last year, is down 12 percent through August. In total, Honda’s light trucks have about 5 percent of the U.S. auto market, a dip versus last year. By comparison, Toyota’s eight SUVs and minivans constitute nearly 9 percent,a 12 percent increase in share.