Pontiac's ads offer free ride

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Pontiac is looking to drive excitement for its ailing brand with commercials featuring unusual endorsers: People who don't own its cars.

The General Motors Corp. brand's first image effort since 1997 breaks Oct. 7 on CBS's Emmy Awards broadcast. The estimated $30 million campaign uses non-Pontiac owners chosen on the streets of Manhattan and Los Angeles. They get the keys to either a Grand Am or Grand Prix for a week. Their time-off and adventures, paid for by Pontiac, are filmed for several hours daily. "Think of it as reality TV meets marketing," said Lynn Myers, general manager of Pontiac.

She said the "Pontiac Excitement. Pass it On" tag in the spots isn't a respositioning of the brand. "We just want to keep it fresh and relevant."

Pontiac brand may have a way to go to generate that excitement. It suffers from an aging product lineup and will lose its longstanding Firebird muscle-car icon at the end of the 2002 model year. Pontiac's vehicle sales slipped 12.6% to 375,618 units through August vs. a year ago, according to Ad Age sibling Automotive News. Sales of the Atzek sport wagon, launched in June 2000, have been sluggish, and Pontiac is working on appearance changes for Aztek's 2002 model year.

The Grand Am and Grand Prix were chosen because they account for more than half all Pontiac sales, said Annette Lloyd, director of advertising at the brand. She added that research showed younger buyers are skeptical of Pontiac's excitement theme. "If you have to say you're exciting, then you're probably not and you have to demonstrate it. So instead of showing people our version of excitement, we decided to encourage them to create their own excitement."

A trio of 30-something male New Yorkers located in Greenwich Village headed to a speedway and then onto Atlantic City. A young couple found in Battery Park went skydiving.

"The thing we love about this is it's anti-advertising," said Gary Topolewski, who arrived in May as exec VP-chief creative officer of Bcom3 Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich. "You could never script" the activities chosen by the participants, he said. The new tag line, he said, is "almost like a chain letter-you pass along Pontiac excitement."

The effort has an online component. On www.pontiac.com, the marketer will ask visitors to explain why they should be in a TV spot next year, Ms. Lloyd said. Visitors can also send electronic postcards to friends. The push will include outdoor, breaking today, and print ads, beginning later this month, running mostly in weeklies.

DMB&B tapped Plum Productions' Real TV director Adam Cohen to film the campaign. Bcom3's Clarion Marketing & Communications Group, Greenwich, Conn., interviews the potential participants, who start their road trips within a day or two after getting the nod, Mr. Topolewski said.

Filming of the first two :30s in Manhattan and L.A. started 10 days before the terrorist attacks in New York. "We're not going to show any footage that's sensitive," said Ms. Myers.

Pontiac is counting on the Vibe sport wagon, due in the first quarter, to attract buyers in their 20s. The wagon will be advertised under the same ad theme, as will all other vehicles. Pontiac sells the Montana minivan, Sunfire small car, Aztek and the Bonneville sedan. Bonneville has the oldest Pontiac owners, in their 50s.

"There's a lot riding on the Vibe" for Pontiac, said Jim Hall, VP at consultancy AutoPacific. He described the Vibe as a "stand-out vehicle" and "absolutely the right product" for the brand. "If they use it [Vibe] as a template for what Pontiac is, then it services some upside potential."

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