PONTIAC SETS OUT TO ECLIPSE NEON WITH THE NEW SUNFIRE

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Pontiac is readying a Neon-fighter, but its Sunfire will be introduced this fall without a greeting like the "Hi" that appears in Neon advertising.

"If we were to do an ad like that, we'd say, `Yo,"' said John Middlebrook, VP-general manager of Pontiac, which plans to begin shipping the new small car to dealers in late September.

Like Neon, the Sunfire will target the so-called Generation X. But where Chrysler Corp. has built up the image of the Plymouth/Dodge Neon as a cute runabout, Pontiac is counting on brassy styling and a cheeky ad campaign from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to convey a bolder, more sporty positioning.

"Neon's friendly hello is something that produces a little smile," said Michael Wright, Pontiac advertising manager. "We want something with a little more Pontiac attitude, which is about driving excitement."

The General Motors Corp. division will back the Sunfire with an estimated $40 million marketing effort expected to begin in late November.

The campaign includes TV, radio and magazines, along with interactive ads on Prodigy and CompuServe.

Under-30 buyers are expected to make up more than 60% of Sunfire buyers, according to Lynn Myers, general director-brand management and marketing.

Pontiac expects to sell about 85,000 units in the 1995 model year and more in future years.

Chrysler's $80 million launch effort for the Neon, developed by BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., began in January. Through July, Chrysler sold 92,950 units of the Neon in 1994.

Sunfire prices range from $11,500 to about $16,000, with most expected to sell in the $13,000 range. Pontiac executives claim a Sunfire will have a $500 price advantage over a Honda Civic and $650 over a Neon, when comparably equipped.

The Sunfire replaces the Sunbird, a car that had not been significantly redesigned since it was launched as a 1982 model.

"We changed the name because the Sunbird didn't have the brand equity we wanted, particularly with our target market," Mr. Middlebrook said.

The TV effort includes six 15-second vignettes, with two of them to be paired to make up a 30-second spot.

DreamQuest, Los Angeles, handled computer imaging on two of the vignettes that appear to show a Sunfire driving on the Great Wall of China and around the large carved heads on Easter Island.

Mr. Wright said Pontiac will use network and cable sports, late night and prime time, and a combination of broad-base magazines such as People and Sports Illustrated with youth-oriented titles such as Rolling Stone and Spin.

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