Kia learns a lesson from Hyundai

By Published on .

Advertiser: Kia
Agency: David & Goliath, Los Angeles
Ad Review rating: Three stars

This is about Kia's new ad campaign, but first, you will never in a million years guess what the Ad Review staff drives.

We drive a " Hyundai.

Ordinarily we never would have purchased such a thing, lovers as we are of power, handling, classic lines and basic human dignity. Also, we were pretty sure, based on J.D. Power surveys and so forth, that a Hyundai was - as we believe Aristotle so eloquently put it - "a total piece of crap." But then came the Sonata, which is not ugly, and the 10-year power train warranty, which is a genuine thing of beauty. Either the company's notorious reliability problems are solved, or it'll go broke paying dealers for warranty work, but either way we get a free ride.

And, as it turns out, a smooth one. Furthermore, vs. a comparably equipped Camry or Accord, the car was cheap, cheap, cheap.

We mention this for a reason. Obviously, you want to know everything about us, like our favorite ice cream flavor (rum raisin), our favorite TV show ("The Simpsons") and our favorite negotiating round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Uruguay.) Even more importantly, though, is what made us venture into a Hyundai dealership to begin with:

The advertising.

Two years ago, we'd have bought a used Yugo before we'd buy a Hyundai. We'd have bought "The Best of Zamfir," a herd of European cattle and Steve Forbes' presidential platform before we'd buy a Hyundai. But the advertising of the 10-year warranty alone changed our mind, and the minds of tens of thousands of others, too. In those two years, sales have more than doubled.

They also may have fundamentally changed the way Asian automakers obtain market penetration here. The process for four decades was to export small, inexpensive cars to this market, and, on the strength of accumulated brand satisfaction, eventually introduce larger, more profitable models.

But the competition and the barriers to entry are so great now that such patience is rewarded by endless years of backbreaking losses. Last month, Suzuki, Daewoo and Kia - enjoying big increases over year-earlier sales - still amounted cumulatively to less than 2% of cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. So now, the Hyundai paradigm: build 'em cheap, build 'em bigger, build 'em less ugly and at least guarantee you've built 'em to last.

And who owns Kia? Hyundai owns Kia, which explains why the introduction of the Optima mid-size sedan abandons the previous Kia strategy of pandering to Gen Xers with weird and nasty humor in favor of straightforward humor hitting hard, hard, hard on the price-looks-warranty nexus.

The star of two spots is a guy named Frank, who keeps contriving excuses to call attention to his handsome, silver Optima.

"Honey, whose car is that in the driveway?" he asks, seemingly puzzled.

His long-suffering wife humors him, apparently for the umpteenth time, by answering: "It's yours, Frank."

He then breaks out in an exaggerated grin and replies. "It isssss, isssssn't it?" ( That's meant to become a nationwide catchphrase along the lines of "Whassssup?" It won't be.)

But it does sort of grab you. The guy is amusingly transparent and prideful. And the wife's got the best car-ad eye-roll going since the little kid in the Land Rover spot two years ago. She's married to a dork, and she knows it, but she loves him anyway. On the other hand, as the voice-over says, "It's an extraordinary car at an extraordinary price. The new Optima. Who wouldn't be proud?"

"Proud" might be overstating it, but these spots do communicate the notion that you can own a well-equipped, 6-cylinder import while maintaining both fiscal sanity and some semblance of human dignity. The new tagline, "Darn good cars," may seem a bit soft-pedaled. Compare it, though, to what Aristotle said about Kia:

"The enthymeme is a sort of syllogism, and the consideration of syllogisms of all kinds, without distinction, is the business of dialectic, either of dialectic as a whole or of one of its branches. And, at this price, with this warranty, who cares if it's a total piece of crap?"

Copyright February 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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