Upfront 2004 – The Advertisers: Automotive

Auto marketers are getting out the antacids in anticipation of another difficult upfront. “There’s a lot of heartburn on that subject,” says Fred Suckow, Nissan North America director of marketing. “No company builds in the inflationary spikes that have happened recently. But a sizable player would have to pull out for anything to change.”

Across the board, auto marketers are sulking about increasing costs and increasing clutter. There are too many spots per program, they say, and with the huge number of channels and programs available, it’s difficult to decide which one has more potential to best showcase a particular vehicle. But the marketplace itself is cluttered as well. There will be anywhere from 70 to 95 new or significantly updated vehicles introduced this year.

Last year, automakers spent $6.5 billion in total on all TV buys, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. More than $2.5 billion went to network TV and of that, about $1.7 billion was in prime time. Meanwhile, they laid out $2.5 billion on spot.

Nissan spent $249 million on network TV in 2003, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Despite the fact that they are launching three all-new vehicles over the next year, “Our levels will be about the same or we may pull back slightly,” says Suckow.

General Motors goes into the upfront with new marketing leadership: C.J. Fraleigh and Michael Browner are out; Roger Adams and Betsy Lazar are in. A GM spokesperson says that Lazar, who heads the media buying operation, is paying close attention to the dynamics of the marketplace. “We won’t finalize our buying strategies until we get a better read on what the overall advertiser demand is going to be,” says GM. “If the prices aren’t favorable, there may be vendors we won’t do business with on an upfront basis.” The automaker spent $611 million on network TV in 2003, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

At Ford Motor, network TV spending was up slightly in 2003 to $427 million. It’s likely the automaker will maintain that level in 2004, since it’s launching several key vehicles this year, including its new flagship sedan, the Ford Five Hundred.

David Rooney, Chrysler Group director of media operations and cross-brand marketing, says new model launches for the automaker this fall include the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Dakota, and that Chrysler will spend more on network accordingly. Chrysler Group parent DaimlerChrysler spent about $230 million on network in 2003 for the Chrysler Group and Mercedes, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Nissan’s Suckow says “program erosion” is a big concern. “A top-rated show now would not make it in the top 20 from just the recent past,” he says. “We feel we have taken some chances and invested in programs that have become a success. Then, suddenly, that property ends up with more commercial time, your message gets diluted. That’s the stuff that’s frustrating.”

While Kia had success last year with network placement of a branding campaign, the South Korean automaker says it’s easier to reach its targets with cable TV. “We’re pretty frustrated with the upfront,” says Tom Smith, Kia director of marketing communications. “There are not too many other business models where you can deliver less and charge more. Cable networks really add a lot of exposure with no extra cost.”—Tanya Irwin

Tanya Irwin is a freelance writer based in Detroit.


David Rooney is the Chrysler Group director of media operations and cross-brand marketing.

What’s the upside to network programming?

“The strength of television is that it provides a broad, very visual, active lifestyle showcase for our product. It is still sight, sound, motion; it has entertainment value as well educational value. “

And the downside?

“The issues with the upfront have to do with increasing costs and increasing clutter and lower individual ratings. The key here for us is programming. We are interested in quality, things that break through. But at the end of the day, we’re looking for a fairly narrow mix of specific programs that fit our lifestyle targets.”

Are there specific buys from last year that stand out as being outstanding choices?

“[NBC’s] The Apprentice. There’s a new show, a new piece of programming, a new quasi-reality program that we were willing to take a risk on with the Chrysler brand. We thought it had an upscale feel to it, a premium appeal. And as it turns out, that one went very well.”

Will Chrysler continue to look at reality programs or have they hit their peak?

“We don’t arbitrarily across the board say all reality is good or all reality is bad. All new shows have a high failure rate. There will be good reality shows that catch on. We look more at the individual programs rather than the category overall.”—T.I.

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