Automotive Report: Auto Focus

So many cars, so little air time—and print space and time to spend on the Web. How do automakers break through the clutter of TV spots and print advertising? Highly targeted ads, for one. Highly charged ads, for another. Getting consumers’ attention has never been a bigger challenge for automakers. As options increase—more cable networks and online opportunities, for starters—the potential for ads to get lost in the mix is as predictable as the freeway bottleneck at 5:30 p.m. Still, it doesn’t mean abandoning traditional advertising categories altogether. TV and print still reach millions of eyeballs each day. But, in many cases, the message needs to be tailored to the specific audience. As the examples that follow show, the tighter the focus of the ad, the more tailored the message. Which could mean the difference between someone switching the channel during a car commercial, or sticking around to see what happens.

At the beginning of the year, Mitsubishi had an image problem. The Japanese automaker’s U.S. ads, by Deutsch/L.A., Marina del Rey, Calif., had garnered press for featuring indie tunes—creating hit songs for bands such as Dirty Vegas and Telepopmusik—and raising brand awareness, but product attributes took a low profile. “We had very good awareness, but low natural demand,” says Ian Beavis, svp of marketing, product planning and public relations for Mitsubishi. “You buy a Toyota or a Honda, and you don’t have to justify yourself. With a Mitsubishi or a Nissan, you do.” The time had come for a change.

“For the past four to five years, we’d been focusing on what Mitsubishi as a brand stands for, a cooler, youthful alternative to other Japanese imports,” such as Honda and Toyota, says executive creative director Eric Hirshberg. “With this campaign, we needed to achieve a little bit more familiarity and preference for individual products. We wanted to go deeper into how the products perform, how their equipment rates versus the competition.”

Where else to make the change than the Super Bowl, where Deutsch debuted “Freeway,” a 30-second spot showing a Mitsubishi Galant taking on a Toyota Camry on a freeway. Two men riding in open tractor-trailers hurl items such as a bowling ball, outdoor grill and trash cans at the Galant and Camry, while the cars attempt to avoid the hazards. When the cars peel out of the way as two overturning subcompacts roll toward them, the action stops and copy directs viewers to a Web site: At the Web site, viewers get a recap of the action and the final scene from the spot, which shows the Galant swerving out of the way of the upturned car, while the Camry pulls off to the side of the road.

The Web was chosen for the company’s message because, says Beavis: “Online is the best of all possible worlds. You get all the emotion and movement of TV, and all the information of print in a way that’s absolutely measurable.”

The company recorded more unique visits in the 24 hours after the Super Bowl than typically gets in a month (that site averaged 294,000 unique visitors during a six-month period last year, according to comScore Media Metrix) and has had 3 million unique visitors since the spot began airing. And, according to Beavis, 70 percent of visitors are watching the commercial two times or more.

Two more cliffhanger spots filled with stunts are in the works, breaking this month, one featuring the Galant again, and another featuring the Endeavor. The strategy, in part, works because it is unexpected, says Hirshberg.

“Telling consumers a Mitsubishi is sexier or cheaper than a Honda or Toyota they can believe,” he said. “Telling them it performs better—that’s a surprise.”

To market cars to a nontraditional demographic—the 22-year-old male—Attik in San Francisco took a nontraditional approach. Eschewing national TV spots, they instead created a campaign focused on print and guerrilla work and designed it as a soft sell.

“It’s our job is to portray mindset for the brand, to make you feel excited and connected rather than trying to force a product down someone’s throat,” says Will Travis, president of San Francisco-based Attik, which created the campaign.

Print ads, which group creative director Simon Needham helmed, commissioned a variety of artists and designers to interpret the Scion their own way: one ad, for example, carried the headline “Scion by House Industries” and showed purple and blue drawings of the car with the word “Scion” in large blue graffiti type letters designed by the Yorklyn, Del.- based font company. Another ad, which broke in February, showcased a car, called a ‘tuner,’ that car customizer LJ Garcia modified.

The media buy matched the creative, with print running in carefully selected magazines such as URB and The Source. Internet was also part of the mix. The agency created graffiti tools and a music mixer, which are available on Scion’s Web site, And Scion sponsored art openings and pool parties in Los Angeles.

When the car launches nationally in June (it has been rolling out in spot markets since last June), there will be national TV and cinema spots in the mix, but the client and agency will also try to keep the urban, youthful focus. “You never know how the campaign is going to evolve,” says Dawn Ahmed, Scion national advertising manager. “There are a multitude of different ways to go with the campaign, and we haven’t tapped the majority of ways.”

Videogames and music videos and . . . Volvo? It might not seem the most obvious connection, but with the launch of its sporty S40 model in March, Volvo Cars of North America was seeking to shake off its sedate image and target younger car buyers, in the 25- to 35-year-old range. So it enlisted Euro RSCG Worldwide in New York to help the car increase hipness while retaining the traditional safety message Volvo is known for. For two TV spots that broke March 1, creatives decided to place the car in pop culture venues that the demo utilized and that “fetishized” cars the most, according to executive creative director and partner Kevin Roddy: videogames and music videos. For one spot, the shop enlisted Xbox’s RalliSport Challenge 2 videogame creators to insert a digital version of the S40 into actual Rallisport landscapes. And for the second spot, which was shot in the style of a music video, Euro hired music video director Dave Meyers to direct and used a breaking song by hip-hop group Dilated Peoples for its soundtrack. Volvo tested the ads with panels of existing Volvo owners, as well as older consumers, to make sure the ads wouldn’t alienate anyone.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t doing anything to turn off those groups,” Jim Borsh, Volvo national advertising manager, said. “But the safety message still came through.”

Print and online advertising is also part of the mix, as are partnerships with other brands marketed toward the young and hip—they’re offering driving sessions via Virgin Megastores and displayed the car in Bloomingdale’s in March.

Is the approach working? Since the car launched just last month, “right now results have been highly anecdotal,” Borsh says. “But we’re getting a lot of comments from people who have seen the ads, and it seems to be the right audience.”

Why would Ford create not one but two commercials for a $140,000 “supercar,” of which they plan to manufacture less than 800 this year? The tagline for the spot says it all: “The pace car for an entire company.”

The two spots for its 2005 Ford GT broke pregame during the Super Bowl: a 30-second teaser spot shows fast cuts of the red-and-white car’s interior and exterior, interspersed with glimpses of the vehicle driving around a track. In the 60-second version, the car is seen circling the track at high speeds. A voiceover asks questions like, “In which gear do you realize that a car is everything it is supposed to be?”

The spots were shot at a race course in Thunderhill Park in Willows, Calif. A helicopter and a high-speed camera car were enlisted to film the Ford GT, which reached speeds of up to 140 miles per hour with professional driver Rod Milner behind the wheel. At some points, the helicopter couldn’t keep up with the car.

The GT spots are a way for Ford to show off its corporate pride in what the company has dubbed “the year of the car”—Ford is introducing five new car models, including the GT, according to Tom Cordner, executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson in Detroit, Mich., which created the spots. “Ford is in a place now where it is in a very confident mode of taking some risks with products,” Cordner says. “Instead of playing catch-up to the world, it is saying ‘we’re capable of anything, of amazing products.'”

The ads make “a huge statement beyond the few vehicles those lucky enough to be able to purchase one are able to experience,” adds Rich Stoddart, manager of marketing communications at Ford division. “It’s as much a statement about what we are capable of as anything else.”

The 60-second spot will be shown throughout the year during selective high-profile TV events.