Detroit is speaking in mother tongue

By Published on .

Detroit is due for a reality check.

Domestic automakers have struggled in recent years with how to advertise family-friendly vehicles, fearful they'll be pegged "mom- mobiles" and shunned by men. Minivans were the only model Detroit directly targeted at moms.

But realizing women with children are just as likely to drive a sport utility, sedan or sport wagon, one of the newest industry segments, the industry is broadening its view with advertising in parent-targeted publications, more mom-related tie-ins and events and a new vehicle hybrid that straddles the sport utility/minivan divide.

An auto consultant who works with Detroit carmakers said his clients are now trying to understand families and what motivates their vehicle purchases, and putting products out that really speak to moms. "Detroit is just a little bit behind the other manufacturers," the consultant said.

A popular phrase in the industry since the 1950s is "you can sell a woman a man's car but you can't sell a man a woman's car," said Jim Hossack, a VP at consultancy AutoPacific. Recent research with SUV owners revealed they liked the vehicle's image even though their reasons for purchase should have resulted in buying a minivan.

The soccer-mom backlash started in the late 1990s when more SUV models arrived. Before that, advertisers directly appealed to soccer moms. Chevrolet sponsored both men's and women's U.S. Soccer Teams and U.S. Youth Soccer Association for regional and national amateur games. Audi of America and Mitsubishi Motors North America both prominently used the phrase "soccer moms" in 1998 advertising. Shortly after, research showed women resented seeing vehicles categorized as soccer-mom-type products, said another Detroit media expert.

Chrysler Group no longer shows soccer balls in the back of its vehicles. "We try not to push the whole soccer angle," said Julie Roehm, director-marketing communications of Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep. The automaker "tries not to center on the status of family" for the Chrysler Pacifica sport wagon and Dodge Durango SUV, she said. Instead, ads try more to show how the vehicles' features fit lifestyles.

"There's lots of ways to do it without saying `this is a family vehicle."'


Another issue is media choice. With the exception of minivans, Detroit carmakers don't directly target moms with TV and magazine buys, which is a travesty, considering all the money plowed into male-targeted buys, said one media expert. The automakers "will tell you `we don't target moms, we target women' or `we target adults and we reach moms with that media,"' said the expert. But the buys under-deliver on moms, claims the expert, saying they have little time to watch TV or read magazines.

"Tens of millions of women read our magazines and they don't have time to read other magazines anymore," said Mary Jo Czarnecki, Detroit account manager of Time Inc.'s Parenting and Baby Talk. She noted that Asian automakers "are in this category because they recognize mom books reach their audience" and they advertise more types of vehicles, while Detroit mostly focuses on minivans.

Detroit stayed away from the parenting-magazine category "for a while because they believed big SUVs have a rough-and-tumble image," Ms. Czarnecki said, and also partly due to ad budgets.

But the attitude is changing, she said, and Detroit carmakers "are coming around to recognizing the importance of moms." Fall issues of Parenting carry ads for the most diverse group of products from Detroit in three years.

Although Chrysler advertises in magazines for moms, they don't dominate its media buy. Recognizing moms' time constraints on media consumption, Ms. Roehm said Chrysler Group is doing more partnerships and events to reach them. The Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country minivans were displayed this year in movie theater lobbies as part of the "Dora the Explorer" tour. Dodge's Caravan, Durango SUV and Magnum sport wagon were on a national zoo tour earlier this year to reach families.

There's more at stake. Generation X, a key target for automakers, is heavily represented in the pool of moms. Of all women between the ages of 25 and 44, nearly 74% are moms, according to research from MRI in spring 2004.

"If it wasn't such an important audience, who would care?" said a media expert with ties to the industry. "If you don't win these young families over, you're dead."

crossing over

A media buyer for one of Detroit's automakers said his client "never had a mom-mobile fear." The buyer also disputed the media expert's claim that moms have no time to watch TV, citing high female-viewership data. But non-moms and retired women bring up female TV viewership figures, countered the media expert.

In positioning SUVs to moms, automakers are walking a fine line. "You don't want a position of the minivan-mom stereotype for SUVs, even though the bottom line is that's who buys them," said Kim Kosak, general director-advertising and promotions at General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet. It's no surprise, then, that SUV ads more often than not show the vehicle driven by men on rugged country roads.

GM is calling its new 2005 minivans "crossover sport vans," or CSVs, because the front end looks more like an SUV. A GM spokeswoman said that the prime target of the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6 and Saturn Relay is families. But AutoPacific's Mr. Hossack said the CSVs are minivans, because they have sliding rear doors.

"GM is not going to fool anyone," he said. "If I were the marketing guys, I'd want to call them CSVs too."

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