Rubin Postaer Interactive digs beneath the surface for Honda’s CR-V sport utility vehicle.
It’s a perplexing thought: Auto makers have allocated some of the biggest budgets to online media, according to Jupiter Communications. In the offline world, this same group has spread its advertising to the farthest corners of the media universe. Yet when it comes to merging the two practices–essentially, online advertising–the car category has been conspicuously uninspired, directing most efforts toward search engines and car-oriented sites such as CarPoint and Auto-By-Tel.
The approach taken by American Honda Motor Co. has mostly followed the status quo, maintaining a stable of search-engine keywords, such as “cars” on Excite, and rotating banners for a high click-through rate on sites with auto content. “We’ve learned from a couple of years now what most effectively drives traffic,” says Meridee Alter, vice president and media director at Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rubin Postaer Interactive, Honda’s interactive agency.
And the car company’s first online sponsorship followed an important lesson learned in traditional media: affix the brand to entertainment content. The pioneering Web soap “The Spot” was a recipient of Honda dollars early on, but that approach has since been modified. “Initially, we viewed the Internet as another forum for our advertising, but, as things have evolved, there has been a duality of purpose,” observes Randy Kawahara, assistant manager for auto advertising at Honda.
The first purpose is to drive traffic to the Honda Web site itself, which features information on all of its car models. The second intent is to keep the Honda brand in the market year-round.
The best example of the new thrust is a Web campaign created by RPI for Honda in conjunction with a Super Bowl TV spot early this year. Though the campaign is no longer running, the new media industry is still buzzing about it. “[RPI is] very creative and they are always pushing for a little more,” says Abbe Murray, Western director of Cox Interactive Sales.
“USA Today was more of a tactical move, a strategic point of entry, a chance to do something a little bit differently,” insists Kawahara.
The campaign ran on the home screen and section screens of the USA Today Web site from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3, timed to run immediately after the debut of the Super Bowl spot, created by Rubin Postaer, on Jan. 26. The TV spot for Honda’s new CR-V sport utility vehicle featured a man reading a USA Today newspaper, out of which a CR-V drove from its print ad into the outdoors.
RPI’s Alter and staff were charged with creating a similar splash for the CR-V on the Internet. “We thought, ‘Well, gee, why not go to [the USA Today] site and try to accomplish there what was accomplished in the TV commercial,'” Alter recalls. So that’s what RPI staff did: just as in the TV spot, the CR-V was first seen in a static position and, after a few seconds, began driving off its original location in the upper left corner of’s home screen. The car drove under the navigation bar and appeared to be driving beneath the text within that box, the same way an object would ripple underneath an analog newspaper. Ultimately, the vehicle emerged on the right side of the screen, where a message from Honda–and a link to its site–appeared.
This pattern was repeated every 10 seconds. To keep from disorienting readers, RPI was required to keep the car and its rippling effect away from editorial text that changes on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.
The USA Today effort was the culmination of a promotional process that had started in March 1996, when Honda posted information on the CR-V at, a year prior to its availability. At that time, a direct-marketing campaign steered potential buyers to the Honda site, where a registration-required microsite allowed them to preview the car.
“It was unusual for Honda,” says Alter of the company’s release of an early look at the sport utility vehicle. But Honda was happy with the results: 100,000 names were retrieved from the Web campaign. Actual sales of the CR-V, which are not tied to online performance for now, have been some 40,000 to date, according to a Honda representative.
Sources say Honda spent some $1 million on the Internet this year, and that is likely to double next year, according to these same sources. With most of the current budget directed to the Web site, online advertising has remained limited to proven click-through campaigns.
“From a budget standpoint, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to be on larger sites,” says Kawahara. Which is why the USA Today campaign was significant. Although the company won’t release click-through results, Alter says RPI purchased 2 million impressions from USA Today, which overdelivered by 3 million.
In non-empirical terms, the ongoing reaction by the new media industry and Internet users is probably immeasurable value that exceeds the price paid for the campaign. USA Today benefited from the ad, too. Allegra Young, marketing manager at USA Today Information Services, reports that sales executives have received requests from other advertisers hoping to create a campaign that similarly goes beyond the banner and incorporates the site’s non-advertising areas with sponsorship.
Last month, Oldsmobile, which has been active in Web sponsorships, launched a campaign for its Intrigue model that wove its brand into the site’s logo.
Now for the part everyone wants to know: How did they do it? According to Van Secrist, an art director at RPI, “It was tricky because we’d never seen it done before.”
To create the images and rippling effects, RPI used common authoring tools such as GifBuilder and Adobe’s AfterEffects. The navigation bar was taken as a screen shot and recreated by RPI so that the car would drive under it every 10 seconds. The action part was the big dilemma, according to Secrist: “But then we thought, why not, because we could just control the cycle times.”
The big challenge: that USA Today limits advertisers to file sizes of 10 kilobytes. That happens to be about the same file size as an average advertising banner, with minimal motion and graphics.
RPI executives, however, reasoned that if each file was the same size, and the files were designed so that one triggered the next in a sequence, they could make the CR-V repeatedly appear to drive beneath the Web page. Each file would play itself out and set off the next file, which had downloaded in the background, and was now cued to go.
In the media department, buyers were negotiating with USA Today on how to structure the deal. The two parties agreed upon pricing the ad on a cost-per-impression basis, with a click-through guarantee the agency won’t release. “It’s not that much different from traditional media,” says RPI’s Alter: “You have a plan and an objective.”
RPI is likely to continue to seek out additional opportunities to showcase the brand in innovative settings, as it has done in a deal with CBS Sportsline, which carried an auto-racing microsite on its venue last month. “If we had all the money in the world, sure we’d be on more than one site,” says Alter. “But if we can be on one and blow it out, that’s marquee value.”