Autos ready $350 mil blitz despite war

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Auto marketers are proceeding with no fewer than 12 new ad campaigns this spring with a blockbuster $350 million in spending, with plans dependent on war coverage.

At the onset of war, a handful of category titans completely pulled their ad schedules. Volkswagen of America, Mercedes-Benz USA and American Honda Motor Co. yanked advertising for a week. Nissan North America's Nissan and Infiniti brands took a seven day-hiatus that ended March 26. Toyota Motor Sales USA opted out of all TV news for a week while its Lexus division blacked out all-news cable TV networks for seven days, a policy it plans to re-evaluate April 2. Ford Motor Co. and its stable of brands have stayed the course in entertainment programs but opted out of TV news coverage of the war and newsweeklies, a spokeswoman said.

Now, a dozen auto marketers, contacted last week by Advertising Age, are resuming ad plans-with some caveats. Lexus, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group, for example, have asked media executives not to place ads near war coverage in national and local newspapers and newsweeklies or during TV news-magazine programs. All said they would continue to monitor the situation and pull advertising if appropriate.

At least nine new models are coming in March and April, and Subaru of America and American Suzuki Motor Corp. are breaking major new 2003 campaigns in mid-to-late April. Among the introductions: Lexus' RX330 SUV, backed with an estimated $65 million in media; Mitsubishi Motors North America's $60 million Endeavor SUV sendoff; Kia Motors America's $40 million Sedona minivan push; and $30 million in media for GM's freshened Pontiac Grand Prix. Ford Motor Co.'s all-new Lincoln Aviator also continues its $60 million campaign begun in February.

Steve Wilhite, VP-marketing for both Nissan and Infiniti, said it's important for the company to stay on track to introduce its sixth-generation Maxima. It's "a pretty important product for us. It's our flagship sedan," he said. Mr. Wilhite declined to discuss spending, but said Maxima's 2003 blitz is "significantly" more than what was spent on the older, outgoing 2002 model. He's targeting annual sales of 75,000-plus units. Nissan sold 98,502 Maximas last year, according to Automotive News.

For the launch, Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles, created four :30s that show off the Maxima's new styling and 265-horse power performance. In three of the spots, passers-by touch the parked Maxima and are mysteriously transported into an exhilarating drive in the car.

sustained approach

The sedan's multimedia push includes magazines, outdoor, the Internet and direct, said Wayne Adair, marketing director at Nissan. Nissan's all-new Murano SUV, launched earlier this year, will remain on the media schedule into May. "We are taking a launch and then sustaining it, not a launch-and-leave approach."

All automakers contacted said they've reviewed their national creative, and only one, Toyota, said it pulled a TV commercial. The spot, for its Tacoma, showed the pickup in a desert. Toyota Division said last week it was still checking regional dealer ad group work.

A Toyota spokeswoman said Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, Torrance, Calif., developed three "alternative" new TV spots for the brand's regional dealer ad groups. She said they are not in response to the war. Each spot touts the fuel economy of Toyota vehicles and carry the new theme, "Count on Toyota." The groups may still use ads for Toyota's March sales event, the spokeswoman said.

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