SATURN WILL SHIFT AD FOCUS FROM PEOPLE TO PRODUCTS: TESTIMONIALS TAKE BACK SEAT; MEDIA MIX LIKELY TO BE AFFECTED, TOO

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Saturn Corp. is moving away from customer testimonials in its advertising and putting new emphasis on reaching first-time car buyers.

In ads hitting later this year to promote its 1998 models, the General Motors Corp. subsidiary will concentrate more on its cars and less on the people who build and buy them. The shift comes on the heels of-though it's not necessarily related to-a controversy surrounding one of Saturn's endorsers.

The audience shift is likely to affect the media mix for Saturn's nearly $200 million ad budget.

"Our dealers want more value-focused advertising," said Don Hudler, chairman, president and CEO of Saturn. "We tend to focus on the Saturn experience and how Saturn differs from other car companies .*.*. There's lots of competition that's price-based."

Saturn in March pulled print and TV ads featuring Saturn owner Holly Daniel communicating in sign language amid questions about whether the woman is actually deaf (AA, March 31).

Dave O'Hare, senior VP-national creative director at Saturn agency Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, downplayed the connection between the controversy and the strategy shift.

`REGARDLESS OF HOLLY'

"Regardless of whether Holly panned out to be truthful," he said, Saturn was planning to move the spotlight from the company to the car in its next round of ads, breaking later this year. The ads will keep the tagline "A different kind of company, a different kind of car."

CONCENTRATING ON CAR

"We'll now be focusing on the inside of the car, while before we focused on the people who built the car" and the people who bought it, Mr. O'Hare said.

New spots may delve into topics such as dent-resistant doors and what that means in terms of car depreciation, he said.

The new campaign will employ self-effacing humor, and will shift from Saturn's original main targets-auto enthusiasts and those who otherwise might have bought an import-to a wider group that includes first-time buyers.

"We want to tell the Saturn story in a way that younger people will hear it," Mr. O'Hare said, noting that many first-time car buyers were as young as 10 when the first Saturns rolled off the assembly line in 1990.

While some customer testimonials might be included in the next round of advertising, the agency won't be trolling as hard to find customer stories.

"The interesting, amazing stories are getting harder to find," Mr. O'Hare said. "I don't want Saturn to become predictable."

Saturn plans to increase its print advertising, and the new direction makes likely a shift in media buys.

Saturn spent nearly $170 million in measured media in 1995, and $184.5 million last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

CAR SALES SLIP

Unit sales slipped in the first quarter to 60,287, down 6% from the same period last year. Mr. Hudler said Saturn, like other small cars, traditionally has lower sales in the winter. Saturn's strongest sales period has been from spring through early October.

Saturn sees its main competition as coming from Toyota Motor Sales USA, American Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Corp. USA, and to a lesser degree from Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Escort and Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge and Plymouth Neons, which have been offering strong sales incentives.

Saturn also is planning a new round of advertising for GM's EV-1 electric car, sold only by Saturn dealers via leases in four Western markets.

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