NEON NEEDS A RECHARGE

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Pity the proud parents of the marketing program for Chrysler's new Neon.

As reported in our behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for the launch of the small car, great effort was expended on deciding how to reach a new generation of potential buyers. Nearly 30 focus groups and discussions with an unusual panel of experts on the so-called Generation X helped BBDO Worldwide determine its creative and media approaches. The automaker's own marketing people served on the team deciding the design, engineering and manufacturing approach for the car itself, an acknowledged improvement in the way Detroit does things.

Then the media exposure begins-a much-ballyhooed blast on the Super Bowl telecast. Results? In a USA Today viewer poll, one of two Neon commercials comes in dead last. Chrysler said the spots did better in a survey of the Interactive Network's game participants, and right off we'd have to agree. The latter involved 689 people whereas the USA Today "Ad Meter" included just 60, and the other Neon spot was in the upper half of that rating of 39 spots.

The one in last place got all the ink, of course. But that really wasn't the worst "ink" that has spattered Neon.

Last week, the automaker announced a recall of the car, and it turns out to have been the second in its short life. A computer chip or board or unit is malfunctioning, so the Neon sometimes doesn't start. So, literally, a bad start.

Marketing may provide the jump, however. Chrysler will try to frame the recall as a positive reaction to consumer concerns, a quick-reaction plan that worked in General Motors' Saturn's favor after some failures following that car's introduction. And the fact is the advertising, promotion and merchandising in support of Neon is just beginning; the car will get 25% of Chrysler's $56 million in ad time on CBS' Winter Olympics coverage, and these will be harder-working, product-attribute-oriented commercials.

Perhaps the automaker is fortunate that few people remembered the Super Bowl spots. If these pre-Olympic stumbles are behind it, Neon can now go for the gold.

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