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Getting creative for the very hard sell

July 12, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer
  • Dodge is offering to cover some of the fuel costs for people who buy such vehicles as this 2008 Dodge Ram pickup at a Littleton, Colo., dealership.
Dodge is offering to cover some of the fuel costs for people who buy such vehicles… (David Zalubowski / Associated…)

It's the ultimate marketing challenge: Persuading people to buy something that they don't seem to want anymore.

These days, that something would be gas guzzlers. Sales of light trucks declined 28% in June from the same period last year, according to Autodata Corp. With dealers stuck with tens of thousands of big vehicles on their lots, the automakers' advertising agencies are under pressure to come up with a way to move them.

"Every carmaker is having the same conversation: 'How do we motivate people to buy in a climate when oil is $140 a barrel?' " said Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day, a Los Angeles ad agency.

Right now, automakers are taking multiple tacks and seeing whether anything works. Some want to appear to be tackling the issue head-on and are talking about fuel economy -- even when they're plugging sport utility vehicles. Others are making a play with discounts. Another strategy is to avoid mentioning the gas guzzlers altogether and focus on smaller cars instead.

If you stop fast-forwarding through TV commercials you might be surprised to see some touting the fuel economy of the new Ford Flex, the Cadillac Escalade and the Dodge Journey -- all big vehicles that make a Prius look like a mouse.

Talking about miles per gallon is essential, some automakers say. If Ford didn't mention that its seven-passenger Flex gets 24 mpg on the highway, "it wouldn't even make buyers' consideration," said Jennifer Flake, a Ford spokeswoman.

"We've transitioned to talk about fuel economy because it's what's first and foremost in consumers' minds," said Steve Rosenblum, director of marketing for GMC, which advertises its Acadia as having the best fuel economy of any eight-passenger SUV. It gets a combined city-highway 18 mpg.

Isn't that a bit like an elephant bragging that he's lighter than a hippopotamus?

"If you're the elephant, it matters," Rosenblum said. "What you want to do is get the best within the category."

That might be why Hummer ran a print ad stating that the 2008 H3 has a "lower annual fuel cost than many SUVs." It's a bit unclear which SUVs Hummer could be referring to: The H3 gets 15 mpg combined, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A Hummer spokesman said the company used EPA data to make its claim, and that vehicles such as the Nissan Pathfinder, Audi Q7, Infiniti FX45 and Lexus LX570 have higher annual fuel costs than the H3. The claim is partly true: H3 has a lower annual fuel cost of all of those vehicles -- except some versions of the Pathfinder and the Audi. The versions with smaller engines have a lower annual fuel cost than the H3's.

Some experts doubt that comparing one gas guzzler with another will work.

"Because of the Internet, so much information is available that people are going to be able to discover the truth," said Stephen Berkov, the former head of marketing at Audi who is now executive director of client strategy at

Ads that compare cars with one another don't tell people what the brand stands for, Berkov said. Some carmakers would do better to admit that their vehicles don't get very good mileage but are useful for carrying lots of people, off-roading or towing boats.

Some carmakers are giving up on advertising SUVs for the moment and are spending less on advertising overall. From January to March, automakers spent $2.6 billion on TV, radio, print and billboard ads in the U.S., a 10% decrease from the same period in 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"They'll just cherry-pick what they talk about, and only talk about the cars that make sense," said Pat Adams, managing director of Secret Weapon Marketing, which does advertising for Southern California Honda Dealers.

That's why you're hearing BMW talking about its hydrogen car, GM plugging its hybrid SUVs rather than its non-hybrid SUVs and Saab deviating from its message that its cars are "born from jets" -- a plane, after all, seems like the one thing that burns more fuel than an SUV.

Nissan isn't advertising its Rogue or Murano, both crossovers. "There's just not as much interest in those vehicles," said Erich Marx, the company's director of marketing. Instead, the carmaker is concentrating on its entry-level sedans: the Altima, Versa and Sentra.

It's a smart strategy, said Dave Allen, principal at the Richards Group, who formerly headed Hyundai's national creative account at the agency. Although it may not sell SUVs or other big cars, it will at least sell something, he said -- an accomplishment in these tough times. "You fish where the fish are," he said.

It's hard to get people to buy a big vehicle when gas is so expensive. So why not give them some incentives? Maybe stuff a few bills into their pockets?

Ford is offering "employee pricing" on its F-Series trucks. Volkswagen will give $1,500 in college tuition to families who buy its Routan minivan by the end of the summer. Anyone who buys a 2009 Volkswagen will receive free scheduled maintenance for three years.

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