MAZDA GIVES MIATA UNNECESSARY MUSCLE

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Today's question: Would Leonardo DiCaprio ever pretend to be the lead singer of Hanson to try to meet girls?

Answer: Probably not, because for some unfathomable reason, every female under the age of 23 already wants to cuddle the little weenie.

The reason for today's question: Mazda's new branding campaign from W.B. Doner & Co., Southfield, Mich., whose introductory spot takes the sexy Miata roadster and presents it, unnecessarily, as something that it is not.

The commercial opens in a vast plain of satellite dishes in the Baja Desert, where eerie pulsing tones and the sound of radio transmissions are bouncing back and forth. It's all very echoey, very NASA.

"This transmission is coming to you," one voice says.

"We've got it," says another.

The dishes turn to capture the signal, but what comes, at warp speed, is a car -- or at least the superstructure of a car, digitally touched up to appear mirrored and to reflect the horizon, exploding into the picture. This all occurs to sounds of what could be a metal lathe, or a bug zapper. But now we see it in full form; it's a silver 1999 Miata, and it is flying, about to land -- which it then does, at about 300 mph, touching down like the the space shuttle in re-entry.

"The all new 1999 Mazda Miata," says the voice-over. "It's waiting."

From what we can see of it, the new Miata is indeed a handsome car, and it's no wonder Mazda, in restaging the brand in the U.S., is using the popular roadster to start the conversation.

The new tagline is "Get in. Be moved" -- a fairly typical car-ad double entendre that only seems striking because it replaces the fatuous "Passion for the road," which for three years preceded it when Foote, Cone & Belding, Santa Ana, Calif., handled the account. The carmaker says the new line is a "call to action."

OK, we'll give them that one. While the notion of otherwise indifferent consumers suddenly being motivated out of their torpor by a generic car slogan may seem silly, the fact is this is a reasonably intriguing offer. It promises, in credibly small measure, precisely the kind of emotional reward that has been so successful for Mercedes and Volkswagen.

So far, so good. But what's with the telecom/aerospace imagery?

The Miata is mischaracterized here in this supercharged, supernatural depiction of high-tech raw power. It's a fast and responsive little package, but it ain't no muscle car.

The Miata isn't about speed, or conquering the boundaries of space and time. It's about handling and pep and wind-in-your-hair freedom -- which, of course, generate precisely the emotional response Mazda seeks.

So why set up a false impression when the real goods are there for the taking?

It's even more difficult to imagine how the tagline will play juxtaposed with the rest of the car line. The Protege is a tinny subcompact. The 626 isn't plain vanilla, but it's only French Vanilla. (As for the upper-middle Millenia, it's a fine car and a fine value. Ask all eight people who own one.)

Emotion is good. What's bad is cognitive dissonance -- which is precisely what happened with "Passion for the road," which ridiculously, disastrously tried to position Mazda as a sort of revved up line of Japanese Trans Ams.

These are good cars, respected in the automotive world. The trick is to mine their inherent values. Not to pose.

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