Gas prices reached an all-time high last week, while large and midsize SUV sales have tumbled for a year—all good news for Japanese automakers, which enjoy a perceived and real miles-per-gallon advantage over their domestic rivals in the light-truck category.
Though that hasn't translated into all-out miles-per-gallon ad blitzes yet, some Asian automakers and their agencies are exploring ways to press their edge.
"You can expect to see additional messages from Toyota about the fuel economy in our lineup," said Deborah Wahl Meyer, corporate manager, marketing communications at Toyota, Torrance, Calif.
Larry Postaer, partner and director of creative services at Honda shop RPA in Santa Monica, Calif., said the agency is prepping new ads on fuel efficiency. "We are probably going to do some special communications on the retail side," he said. "We don't throw up supers for mileage on SUVs, but we do take advantage of our better image."
In addition to a national spot touting the fuel savings of its hybrid fleet ("Waste"), Honda has been running dealer-retail ads by RPA showing a gas pump gauge spinning.
Others think only a gas crisis on the scale of the 1970s oil embargo would influence ad direction, as it did then. Fred Sukow, Nissan director of sales operations, said ad messages won't change "until the return of gas lines." Against the trend, Nissan's Armada is up 1,600 units over the last year, and the Pathfinder is up more than 8,000 units.
"If we can claim that Nissan has the most fuel-efficient SUVs, it would be a great tool," said Rob Schwartz, ecd at Nissan's shop, Omnicom's TBWA\Chiat\Day, Playa del Rey, Calif. "We're doing that research now."
The Japanese Big Three excepted, SUV sales are tracking gas prices: large SUV sales year-to-date are down 22 percent over the year-ago period. "There is a serious and threatening direct link to gas," said Tom Cordner, co-president of WPP Group's J.Walter Thompson in Detroit, which handles Ford. "Someone will tell that story. And maybe we'll all follow suit and tell it in different places. Will there be an advertiser who aggressively goes after [mpg advantages]? Yes."
Indeed, even Ford has plans to tout fuel economy for its flagging midsize-SUV Explorer. At last week's New York Auto Show, Ford group marketing manager Christine Feuell said Explorer ads relaunching this fall "will play the fuel economy angle—but power will be the main message."
Toyota has been ahead of the curve, running energy efficiency spots that tout its better-mileage fleet with mpg ratings for the last year. "The anecdotal evidence is that we're seeing [SUV sales decline] as gas prices are going up and assuming a degree of correlation and causality," said Mark Turner, director of planning at Toyota shop Saatchi & Saatchi in Torrance, Calif. "It might be creeping up in importance."