Auto Giants Tone Down, Pare Back Christmas Ads

Will Mostly Avoid Inappropriate Car-As-$40,000-Gift Messages

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- This year's barrage of year-end auto clearance sale ads will be a little kinder and gentler.
With Subaru's 'Share the Love' push, consumers who buy or lease a new Subaru from Nov. 24 through Jan. 2 can pick one of five charities to receive a $250 donation from the automaker.
With Subaru's 'Share the Love' push, consumers who buy or lease a new Subaru from Nov. 24 through Jan. 2 can pick one of five charities to receive a $250 donation from the automaker.

Automakers generally pony up big bucks to move inventory off their lots and make room for new models in December -- last year a collective $904 million in measured media was spent by the industry in that month alone, according to TNS Media Intelligence. It's unclear whether this year will see such lavish spending given the dire situation in Detroit, but one thing is for certain: The messaging will be more restrained.

"The typical silliness" of ads talking about buying a new car as a holiday gift is the "wrong approach" this year, said Bob Austin, founder of consultant Auto Futures Group and an auto-industry veteran. A car marketer suggesting in an ad that someone buy a $40,000 vehicle for a Christmas present will make them look out of touch, he said.

Just the facts
Mr. Austin, former communications general manager for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in North America who had a long stint at Volvo, advised marketers in this climate to present "real fact-based reasons" for purchasing a new vehicle. "In general people are being very careful with their money and they want real value."

At least two car companies, American Honda Motor Co. and Subaru of America, are taking the high road, both offering consumers a way to give back to those in need. Consumers who buy or lease a new Subaru from Nov. 24 through Jan. 2 can pick one of five charities to receive a $250 donation from the automaker. The push, called "Share the Love," breaks Nov. 24, encompassing buys in print, TV and digital media, and was created by Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis.

"We wanted to create a program that not only stands out from the crowd but is also relevant to our customers' value system, that of giving back to the community," said Kevin Mayer, director-marketing communications at Subaru. Subaru expects to raise up to $5 million for the five charities: Habitat for Humanity International; Boys & Girls Clubs of America; Meals on Wheels Association of America; the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the National Wildlife Federation.

'Much softer, emotional appeal'
Ads for the annual "Happy Honda Days" year-end clearance sale take a different approach this year with a "much softer, emotional appeal rather than a super-duper sale," said Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising for the brand. The automaker took into consideration the troubled economy in fashioning the blitz. Four new TV spots, breaking Nov. 24, communicate "a warm, simple seasonal greeting rather than focusing on an overt sales message," said Dick Colliver, exec VP of American Honda. "The TV messages extend online, where our customers are invited to help Honda enrich the well-being of communities and society."

RPA, Santa Monica, handles creative, digital and media for the campaign, which began Nov. 27. It directs consumers to shophonda.com, where visitors can generate a $1 donation to a Honda-aligned charity by registering on the charity's site and also get up to five chances to instantly win a $100 Visa gift card via an online game. The charities include Little League Baseball/Urban Initiative; Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation; and Keep America Beautiful.

RPA bought top auto-shopping sites including, AOL Autos, Autobytel Network, AutoTrader, Cars.com, Cars Direct, Kelley Blue Book, MSN Autos, Yahoo and Vehix.

"While other car companies are battling it out with rebates and loud sales pitches, this campaign emphasizes Honda's position of strength and confidence," said RPA's Mark Patton, VP-creative director. "The primary message of the campaign is: It's not only about what's important to Honda, but what's important to consumers at this time of year."

Last year, Kia Motors America broke through the clutter of year-end auto sales with a frenetic car salesman dancing around the showroom to "Flashdance." But Michael Sprague, VP-marketing at Kia, said "the mood of consumers is not very festive, and that's why our approach is going to be a little different."

So Kia's "Big Deal Event," with multimedia ads starting Dec. 1 from independent DavidandGoliath, El Segundo, shows the cars as the stars and tout the brand's $5,000 cash-back deal. The marketer will spend more this December on its clearance-sale media buy which starts on the first of the month, said Mr. Sprague, declining to be more specific.

General Motors Corp.'s eight vehicle brands recently started their annual "Red Tag" sale, developed by corporate agency McCann Erickson, Birmingham, Mich.

Spending cut expected
But industry experts said considering Detroit's precarious cash-tight position they don't expect the Motor City's three carmakers to spend as much as past years. Detroit's three carmakers will slash December ad spending by roughly 25%, predicted one of the experts at an auto media agency, who requested anonymity.

Meantime, Mercedes-Benz USA has simply decided to update the creative it used this year for its "Winter Event," Steve Cannon, VP-marketing, told Advertising Age. "Why spend $2 million for a new commercial? I'd rather spend it on media," he said.
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