Joe Isuzu stages comeback

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Joe Isuzu is back and he's cleaned up his act--sort of.

American Isuzu Motors and its ad agency, Ominicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, have revived the character played by David Leisure in TV ads that ran from 1986 until 1990. But don't expect to hear him pitching $9 Isuzus that zip along at a top speed of 300 miles an hour.

Joe Isuzu "isn't a liar anymore, which gives us much more latitude in developing his character," said Gary Tucker, VP-marketing at Isuzu. "He's going to be scheming. Joe is looking out for Joe."

The first Joe Isuzu TV commercial breaks tonight in key spot markets. It shows a roly-poly Joe displeased with the commercial he's watching for the Isuzu Rodeo SUV; he thinks it would be better if he were in the ad. In the second spot, due in late February, the marketer asks Joe to return and he begins a training program. In the third spot, breaking in late March, he'll pitch the Axiom, which moves the media flight to the marketer's first substantial national TV push in a year.

Goodby keeps the "Go Farther" ad tag in the new executions, which maintain Isuzu's SUV specialist status, touted in ads since 1999. Isuzu's 2001 marketing budget is $125 million, including events, which marks a 50% jump from 2000.

"We've been planning his return since he left, and there's been a lot of consternation about when was the right time and what was the right reason," said Mr. Tucker. The timing works now, he said, because the truck marketer wants to maximize its limited ad budget. The right reason turns out to be April's launch of a new vehicle, the 2002 Axiom.

But at least one observer said bringing back the pitchman "sounds like an act of desperation." John Bulcroft, president of the consulting firm Advisory Group, said the original Joe Isuzu ads brought a lot of attention to the brand. But since Isuzu stopped marketing cars in 1994, it has become "a sort of second-tier SUV purveyor," he said.

The original Joe Isuzu campaign, from Della Femina Travisano, New York, was named one of the 100 best ad campaigns of the 20th century by Advertising Age. The campaign put Isuzu on the map and was among the most recalled of its day. Disclaimers would appear on the screen below as Joe Isuzu embellished the facts about Isuzu's cars and trucks.

Isuzu sales slipped in 2000 to 98,066 units from 103,937 trucks in 1999, according to Automotive News, which also reported that Isuzu's North American operation expects to break even this year. Its Japanese parent, Isuzu Motors Ltd., posted a net loss last year.

General Motors Corp., which holds a 49% stake in Isuzu Motors, appears to be putting a stronger stamp on the marketer. Last week, GM announced that Randy Schwartz, one of its vehicle line executives, was moving to Isuzu Motors as exec VP-corporate product planning and finance. The announcement came in the wake of a recent public statement from GM's new chief financial officer, John Devine, questioning whether Isuzu, which also makes commercial trucks and diesel engines, should even be in the SUV market.

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