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More women than ever are checking out car advertising.

And magazine readers in general are continuing to pay close attention to automotive ads, indicating there is still steam in the industry's sales recovery.

Many prospective buyers are reading ads for both domestic and import nameplates. That shows the market is up for grabs, and good advertising can make a crucial difference.

Those are key findings of the fifth annual Starch Automotive Advertising Study, published by the Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based Starch division of Roper Starch Worldwide.

The study of 1994 model year advertising was based on 34,307 personal interviews with readers of 53 publications who had been exposed to 1,281 automobile ads.

Overall, the automotive ads earned the highest scores ever in the survey among women readers asked to identify ads they recalled seeing. That indicates auto advertisers are trying harder to appeal to women (AA, Nov. 11), who are more likely than men to respond to ads that focus on relationships, such as how a car fits into a family, said Phil Sawyer, analyst for the study and editor of the Starch publication Tested Copy.

"A very high number of people are thinking about buying a car," Mr. Sawyer said. "But a fair number of those who say they plan to buy a domestic car are still looking at import ads. At the same time, there is a greater receptivity to domestic-car ads among those who say they plan to buy an import."

Because automotive consumers are less predictable than in past years, advertising plays a more important role, Mr. Sawyer said. "You can probably get away with bad advertising only if your buyers are committed," he said.

In 1994, U.S. auto sales topped the 15-million unit mark for the first time since 1988. Analysts' predictions vary on whether the momentum will continue.

While Mr. Sawyer acknowledged economic factors could dampen sales, he said interest in buying is still running high. Other studies have shown that consumers pay close attention to magazine ads as they get ready to buy a new car or truck, he said.

A separate Roper Marketing & Public Opinion Research survey taken in May 1994 showed 23% of adults said they were going to buy a new car in the next year or two. That was the highest number since May 1989, when 25% had such plans.

In the magazine study, subscribers were asked to identify ads they recalled seeing ("note") and those where they read at least half the copy ("read most").

Of those readers planning to buy a domestic nameplate, 19% read most of an average domestic car ad and 15% read most of an average import brand ad. Those numbers are the same as the previous year, but are a marked improvement from the first survey in 1990, when import ads outscored domestic ads 13% to 12%, even among consumers who intended to buy a domestic car or truck.

Among readers who said they intend to buy an import, 16% read most of an average import ad, down from 17% the previous year. At the same time, 14% of the import intenders read most of an average domestic car ad, an all-time high for the survey and a 1 percentage point increase from the year before.

The most-read ad among readers who said they planned to buy a new car within a year was for Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Infiniti J30 model, created by Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif. Placing second was the campaign for General Motors Corp.'s Buick Roadmaster sedan, created by McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Troy, Mich.

The study reflects the growing popularity of sport-utility vehicles. A Jeep multivehicle campaign by Bozell, Southfield, Mich., finished third and the Ford Explorer campaign by J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, was fifth in the most-read category among readers planning to buy a new car within a year.

Among all readers, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class campaign by Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, was the highest noted, and a Lincoln Continental campaign by Young & Rubicam, Detroit, was the most read. The Continental campaign also topped the most-read scores among women readers, while a Chevrolet Blazer sport-utility campaign by Lintas Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., was the highest noted by women.

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