CHRYSLER SLASHES SPENDING ON PLYMOUTH IN 1ST QUARTER: DETROIT SEES MOVE AS SIGN BRAND IS BOUND FOR JUNKYARD

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Chrysler Corp. made deep cuts in Plymouth brand ad spending during the first quarter, fueling speculation in Detroit's ad community that the entry-level line is headed for extinction.

But Chrysler denied Plymouth will be eliminated, citing new products for the brand coming in 1999.

Chrysler's Eagle brand, which drives into the sunset at the end of the 1998 model year, experienced similar sizable ad cuts before the car marketer confirmed its demise.

DEBATING DEMISE

One executive close to the automaker said Chrysler executives debated earlier this year whether to pull the plug on Plymouth.

"There was great momentum inside [Chrysler] to kill Plymouth," the executive said.

Among the reasons: the brand isn't sold overseas and has no hot-selling truck to boost profit margins.

Chrysler shifted media dollars from Plymouth to focus on a trio of new-car launches for the Chrys-ler brand -- Concorde, LHS and 300M, said Carrie McElwee, public relations manager for Chrysler/Plymouth/Jeep Division.

"There is some Plymouth advertising, but not as much as Chrysler brand," she said. "It's part of our strategy to shift the focus on new products."

Chrysler has made similar ad shifts from older products for crucial launches before, she said.

SPENDING DOWN 43.5%

Plymouth got $28.5 million in measured media in the first quarter, down 43.5% from the same period a year ago, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Nearly $20 million of that was spent on the Voyager minivan.

Plymouth's limited lineup also includes the Breeze and Neon, as well as the low-volume Prowler roadster. The Plymouth cars got a paltry $3.7 million in advertising for the first quarter, down from $20.7 million a year ago.

Voyager sales of 69,601 through May exceeded combined sales of the cars by 5,244 units, Automotive News reported.

Ms. McElwee said the sole Plymouth TV ad this year, a full-line product spot, wasn't done by the brand's national agency, Bozell Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., but by Chrysler's African-American agency, Don Coleman Advertising, also Southfield.

Spending on Chrysler-brand cars during 1998's first quarter rose to $64.8 million, up 38.2% from the first quarter of '97, CMR reported.

SPOTLIGHT ON JEEP

The spotlight will switch from Chrysler brand to Jeep this fall when the redesigned Grand Cherokee sport-utility vehicle debuts, Ms. McElwee said. Next year, the ad push will move to the redone Plymouth Neon, due in the first quarter, she added.

Plymouth sales peaked in 1973 at 748,699. In the first five months of 1998, Plymouth sold 133,958 vehicles, according to Automotive News.

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