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The fierce shoot-out in the auto industry is driving marketers to look for ways to make bolder ad claims than ever before.

Enter Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., a hired gun for automakers and agencies who want to shoot down the competition with comparative advertising.

AMCI has offices in Warren, Mich., and Vista, Calif., a test track in Carlsbad, Calif., and the marketing savvy to help an automaker figure out how to most effectively use test data.

"We are an independent, objective third party," said Gordon Wangers, managing partner of AMCI. "And we are extremely discreet. The information acquired for a client is never shared" with a competitor.

The Nissan Altima introductory campaign created by Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., for the 1993 model year demonstrated the power of a well-executed comparative ad campaign.

"It was our strategy to position the car as `affordable luxury' because it had been developed to exceed the capabilities of cars costing twice as much," said Jack Collins, national manager-sedan marketing for Nissan Motor Corp. USA.

"We were confident that our engineers would hit our development objectives for quality, ride, handling, durability, reliability, fuel economy and so on. We employed AMCI to validate our own development findings and substantiate our claims," Mr. Collins said.

More recently, AMCI oversaw testing between a Nissan 200SX and a Ferrari 512TR that enabled Nissan Motor Corp. USA to break print advertising in March saying the sporty little Nissan is "as fast through the slalom as a Ferrari (without those pesky $3,000 a month payments)."

In recent years, AMCI also has been involved in documenting ad claims for the Mazda Millenia luxury sedan, the Toyota Previa minivan, and BMW's all-season traction capability, among others.

In the late 1980s, AMCI set up testing that allowed Lintas Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., to launch an aggressive comparative ad campaign positioning General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet full-size pickup against its Ford counterpart.

"With the automotive quality gap narrowing, it's hard for a consumer to buy a truly lousy car," Mr. Wangers said. "Our work allows a marketer to differentiate a product with strong ad claims."

Until recently, auto comparative advertising focused on acceleration, passing, braking and cornering abilities, said Jim Wangers, uncle of Gordon Wangers and a senior analyst with AMCI.

With more sophisticated equipment available today, AMCI is able to measure characteristics like transmission smoothness, steering wheel shake, body integrity, and accelerator, brake and steering responses. Even ride smoothness can be quantified, by measuring the vibrations passed up from the suspension to the seat.

Gordon Wangers said AMCI has met with network TV advertising clearance executives to explain the measurement techniques used to justify ad claims. One example was a campaign a few years ago created by Team One, El Segundo, Calif., for Toyota Motor Sales USA that said a Lexus GS300 cornered better and rode smoother than a BMW 530i.

While AMCI plans the programs and prepares certification reports, the tests are sometimes subcontracted to groups such as the U.S. Auto Club, International Motor Sports Association and Southern California Off Road Enterprises. When AMCI does the testing, it uses a former Carlsbad drag strip.

As an automaker prepares to introduce a new car or light truck, AMCI often tests a pre-production version of the vehicle. It then delivers an assessment for the marketing department and ad agency.

"Sometimes we get shot as the messenger," Gordon Wangers said, referring to results that don't support a proposed ad campaign. But if the results merit, a full-blown certification test might be ordered.

Strict procedures are followed. For instance, test cars are purchased at a dealership, and delivery is taken the same day of purchase in order to prevent a manufacturer from tampering with performance.

Competitive cars are tested under the same weather conditions, and with the same drivers. Three drivers take 24 runs in each car, for a total of 72 total drives for each car.

A privately held company founded in 1981, AMCI has 30 employees, including engineers and drivers who are credentialed for racing.

About 30% of AMCI's business revolves around training, such as briefing car salesmen on the relative merits and advantages of a product vs. its competition. AMCI also does a variety of other marketing consulting projects.

But about 60% of its work involves testing for competitive analysis and certification for ad claims.

Although automakers whose products are compared unfavorably in ads sometimes grumble about test results, none has successfully mounted a challenge, Jim Wangers said.

Ironically, AMCI's business was helped by the experience of a non-client, Volvo Cars of North America. Volvo ran into trouble with the Texas attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission in 1990 when it turned out a Volvo was reinforced for a commercial in which a "monster" pickup truck failed to crush a Volvo.

"Since then, auto manufacturers have become more sensitive as to how they represent what their cars can do," Gordon Wangers said.

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