CARMAKERS AIM PR ATTACKS AT TARIFF

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If the Japanese car lobby has its way, President Clinton's re-election bid will be decided June 28, the day the luxury car tariffs are set to take effect.

Japanese car marketers and their friends have hired Hill & Knowlton, Los Angeles, to create a public relations blitz to convince the president to rescind his planned 100% tariff on 13 luxury imports or risk the loss of California's 54 electoral votes next year.

"He's going to be dependent on California if he wants to win re-election," warned Hill & Knowlton VP Robert Alaniz, the "campaign manager" for the Alliance to Save California Jobs.

The campaign is one of numerous PR efforts under way to influence the tariff debate. The alliance is backed with a war chest approaching $1 million from 60 to 80 companies led by the Japanese marketers whose cars have been hit with tariffs-Toyota Motor Sales USA (Lexus), Nissan Motor Corp. USA (Infiniti), American Honda Motor Co. (Acura), Mazda Motor of America and Mitsubishi Motor Sales-as well as their ad agencies and allies like parts makers and truckers who haul cars.

"This is a coalition of people in California who are going to lose their jobs," said Don Spetner, Nissan North America VP-corporate communications.

The alliance hopes to rally politicians and Californians to lobby President Clinton.

Mr. Alaniz said his coalition will run limited advertising in California, either through one agency or a coalition of the car ad agencies.

The alliance will consider asking media to donate space and time to run ads, he said. But media, not wanting to annoy Detroit, are unlikely to rush to the aid of their Japanese car accounts.

The car marketers are focusing on California, home to U.S. headquarters, ports and a high percentage of import drivers. The alliance will make the case the tariffs will cost "up to 250,000" Californians their jobs, Mr. Alaniz said.

"This is a `political campaign,'*" he said. "We've got the campaign office, we've got the posters, we've got volunteers coming in. We're basically saying, `Vote for California.'*"

Most tariff-related advertising so far has been limited to a few ads in Washington-area print media. At the same time, Detroit is staying somewhat in the background.

Japanese marques are supplying dealers with PR materials and developing other communications plans. Nissan sent dealers and press a slick, eight-page position paper full of charts and graphs and quotes from newspapers. Lexus and agency Team One, El Segundo, Calif., are looking at such novel schemes as soliciting comments via an Internet home page that they could forward to Washington.

But Team One Co-Chairman and CEO Scott Gilbert said Lexus decided against advocacy ads, explaining, "We want ads to sell product, not to change people's opinion on trade issues."

Some dealers, meanwhile, are running tariff promotions. Michael O'Brien, co-owner of a Lexus store and manager of Acura and Infiniti stores in the Seattle area, has been conducting a "Beat the tariff" radio and newspaper ad campaign, and expects record sales months at all three dealerships.

Dealers, not generally on the nation's most-loved list, are enjoying a spate of good press as front-line lobbyists. Mr. O'Brien did 13 interviews in one day. Lloyd Guernsey of the Oakland, Calif., Acura store, was interviewed by two TV stations, one radio station and three newspapers.

Clever dealers are taking it upon themselves to translate international tariffs into local news. Mike Sullivan, owner of the Santa Monica, Calif., Lexus dealership, said the tariffs could result in the closing of his $70 million store-costing the city $700,000 in sales taxes, equivalent to four cops, two firefighters and a paramedic.

Whether all this lobbying is aimed in the right direction is not clear. Mr. Sullivan got a cool response from both Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.) and the dealer's liberal Democratic congressman when he visited Capitol Hill with a dealer group.

Added Rick Sbragia, general manager of the Naperville, Ill., Lexus dealership: "The message I got from Washington was `Don't bother talking to us, talk to the Japanese."

Contributing to this story: Les-lie Bayor, Alice Z. Cuneo, Jamie Goldman, Jim Henry of Automotive News, Jo McIntyre, Raymond Serafin and Charles Waltner.

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