'Ultimate driver': BMW rolls 5 Series with test drive on TV

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BMW of North America, lauded for its cinema-quality Internet films, is taking a different turn with its newest push: a 30-minute test-drive program on the Speed Channel.

For next month's launch of its 2004 5 Series, BMW is linking with Speed Channel in its contest searching for "The Ultimate Driver," which refers to the carmaker's longstanding ad tag. The winners will test-drive the sedan on the News Corp. cable TV network.

Speed Channel was planning to do one of its regular new-model test drives of the car, which normally involves a network host, race-car driver and auto-buff book editor, said Bobby Akin, VP-integrated sales and marketing at the network. BMW called the network with the idea of having contestants filmed while test driving the 5 Series. The network had never done a test drive with "civilians," he said. The Ultimate Driver program, which bows Sept. 12, will probably run on the network more than the six-time minimum for other test-drive programming.

"BMW thinks differently in a lot of ways than other advertisers," said Mr. Akin, who called the automaker "somewhat courageous" since it didn't get editorial control of the program.

"This isn't a typical media deal," added Mr. Akin, who declined to reveal costs beyond saying BMW didn't pay for production. BMW regularly buys ad time on the network and runs spots from Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis.

Jim McDowell, VP-marketing for BMW, said the contest started in the spring, with an article on bmwusa.com, in BMW's owners' magazine and an ad in Roundel, a car club title not related to the carmaker. Independent Ritta & Associates, Englewood, N.J., which does direct, collateral and some ads for BMW, handled the effort.

In addition to the 500,000 people Mr. McDowell estimated saw the ad or read the articles about the contest, the automaker reached out via e-mail to prospects who had asked online for more 5 Series information.

To enter, consumers had to write 100 words on why they should be "The Ultimate Driver." BMW invited 25 semi-finalists to its Performance Center in Spartanburg, S.C. There, the pack was whittled to three after driving school and performance drives. BMW flew them to Germany, where they drove the 5 Series at Nurburgring with world champion driver Hans Stuck.

Ferman Wardell, a BMW 3 Series owner in South Carolina, was one of the three winners. He called it "the trip of a lifetime if you're a car enthusiast."

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