Surge in one-way car rentals prompts shift in ad message

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The surge in ground travel since the Sept. 11 tragedy that banned flights has been tenuous, leaving car-rental marketers split on the issue of whether to advertise in the face of an anticipated industry-wide slowdown.

One-way car rentals jumped immediately, prompting most marketers to respond by eliminating drop-off fees. Several, like Budget Group's Budget Rent A Car and ANC Rental Corp.'s Alamo and National-Car-Rental, advertised that policy in newspapers within days of the maelstrom.

For Alamo, one-ways spiked as much as five times more than normal and in some cities 10 times more, a spokeswoman said. ANC created the ads in-house as an add-on to its original budget to run through Oct. 5 in 18 local papers and USA Today. Since then, Alamo has begun a new ad effort created in-house offering reduced "Great American Rates" and containing in the copy familiar patriotic lines like "from sea to shining sea" and not all rental car companies "are created equal."

National ran its ad only Sept. 18 in USA Today, while Cendant Corp.'s Avis Rent A Car communicated its one-way policy only via its Web site. A new Avis TV spot from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, was due to break Sept. 17, but a spokesman said the light-hearted commercial for a special leisure rate has been shelved for a few weeks. "We are not willing to capitalize or exploit this horrendous situation," he said. One-way car rentals for Avis were triple the norm, but didn't make up for the drop in its overall business.

Hertz Corp.'s business dropped 50% since Sept. 11, a spokesman said. Although Hertz pulled back some ads, it's still advertising as it evaluates the market. Moss/Dragoti, New York, handles.

"Seventy percent of all car rental is at airports and if plane travel declines so will car rentals," said David Riedel, VP at Salomon Smith Barney. The segment's stock took a hit of roughly 50% last week, he said.

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