Acura Ads Attempt to Make Piston Blocks, Lug Nuts Sexy

The scene opens with a stark white room, reminiscent of an art gallery, arranged with engine components perched atop tall spindles: crank shafts, piston blocks, belt assemblies.
With all the motors running, the room is a deafening caterwaul. “Most automobiles use only insulation to reduce noise,” announces the narrator, “but we take a different approach. We use microphones to detect unwanted engine sounds, then transmit opposition frequencies to eliminate them.” Like magic, the room falls silent—enough for the viewer to hear a warbling canary inside a bamboo cage. “Active sound control,” the narrator intones, “available only on the Acura.”

The :30 (called “Engine Parts”) is one of nine new TV spots that broke earlier this year by the Honda-owned nameplate. Bearing the tagline, “The most innovative thinking you’ll find, you’ll find in an Acura,” the campaign is an ambitious grab for sales at a time when luxury brands are wheezing under a lingering recession and competitors like BMW and Mercedes keep a firm lock on the performance car segment.

“What we’re trying to do with this campaign, and in this economy, is to show consumers that they can still have a luxury vehicle, but when you make this choice, you can make a smart decision,” said Susie Rossick, Acura’s manager of national advertising. “With this theme, you can see we do things differently.”

Acura’s chosen point of differentiation is engineering. While other top nameplates stick with messages of performance, fuel economy and posh interiors, a strict focus on literal nuts-and-bolts components such as Acura’s side-to-side rear-wheel energy transfer and an Active Damper System for its motor oil represents a new tack. “Without going out and screaming ‘value,’ we’re trying to show consumers that this is a smarter choice—an innovative approach to luxury,” Rossick added.

Christopher Cedergren, senior partner with Los Angeles-based automotive consultancy Iceology, said Acura’s approach is well advised. “Acura is too closely associated with Honda; they don’t have an identity in the marketplace. So the technology [theme in the commercials] makes a lot of sense,” he said. “They need to hang their hat on something they have—and engineering is all they have.”

Considering that—thanks to Toyota’s current ills—Americans are suddenly all-too conscious of the importance of automotive technology that works, Acura’s timing—if only by coincidence—could be good.

While Rossick is quick to distance Acura from both Toyota as a competitor and its current braking and acceleration issues (“We’re not looking at [Toyota’s problems] as an advantage,” she said), Cedergren thinks it might give Acura a boost. “The mere fact that they claim they have great experience in technology hints at the fact that you’re not going to have [Toyota’s] problems,” he said.

Not that Acura hasn’t had its own troubles. Unit sales fell 26.8 percent in 2009 compared to the year before. For the first month of 2010, sales improved but was still off by 1.7 percent, according to company data. Acura cut its ad spend by 45 percent last year, dropping $139 million compared to $225 million in 2008, per Nielsen. Cedergren said that the new campaign—recession or no recession—comes at the right time. “The luxury market has been hit hard, but the issue with [Acura] is that they have to move the metal. They have to keep the cash flowing,” he said.

Perhaps the new spots (created by rp&, a division of RPA) will do that. “The technologies we’re describing in this campaign are quite beautiful,” said Joan Egan, group account director for rp&. “We aimed to make each spot feel as if the viewer was stepping into an art installation in a gallery space, with the technologies as the works of art.”

Now, all the spots have to do is get people to step into an Acura showroom.