That's been the association Americans have had for the past 30 years, according to Gallup polls that routinely lump dealers at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to ethics and trustworthiness.
But now, a group of Honda dealers is out to change that reputation, at least in Southern California. About six months ago, it acknowledged dealers' notorious image and now is aiming to clean it up. The tactic: a marketing campaign to prove Southern California Honda dealers are helpful. Light-blue-polo-shirt-clad dealer representatives roam the streets doing good deeds for the public, while TV spots show them visiting consumers and humorously lending a hand with everyday tasks, such as helping blow up a kiddie swimming pool.
One spot shows a woman on a couch describing a situation that sounds like an attack where she was "surrounded" in a parking lot and felt "uncomfortable." It turns out that she is describing a car-buying experience. Enter the helpful Honda man. She winds up asking the dealer to help her teach an art class where he is asked to take off his shirt and flex. "But I am flexing," he says.
Feet on the street
But what brings the campaign potency are the street teams. For 15 days a month, 20 people in blue Honda shirts give out water, help shoppers load their cars with their purchases from stores and help pump gas -- they may even pay for it if the driver is in a Honda.
The team also paid for all parking in Old Town Pasadena for a day, covering meters with blue Honda signs that read, "It's on us." The teams also brought breakfast to firefighters working at stations near dealerships.
"Our strategy was to admit that, in the past, people have had horrible experiences at car dealers," said Patrick Adams, managing director, Secret Weapon Marketing, agency for the Southern California Honda Dealers Association.
Halfway through the $30 million campaign, Honda is starting to see results. A recent study from research company OTX found the number of car shoppers in Southern California considering Hondas has increased 33%. The study also found the dealers' ratings improved in areas categories such as "informative," "trustworthy" and "not intimidating."
Pinning down sales results from the campaign is difficult. Overall, Honda and Acura sales this year have been up about 1.3% nationally, a company spokeswoman said. Sales in Southern California, hard hit by the housing-credit crunch, are down about 2%, according to an executive familiar with the figures.
"It's something which will build over time," said William Piercey, president of Honda World, Westminster, Calif. "Our goal is for people to want to do business with us as opposed to thinking of us as going to the dentist."