New auto ads elicit mixed emotions

Automotive marketers say they want to emotionally connect with consumers these days. But I'm not sure which emotion some automakers are going for in their advertising.

Advertisers must connect with consumers in order for their messages to stand out from the clutter in media. The key, they say, is to tap consumers' emotions. That idea isn't new, of course, but automakers seem to be more desperate now as they compete for market share in this shaky economy.

Toyota Division ads, created by agency Saatchi & Saatchi, say, "Get the feeling." Which feeling? I feel confused after I view the automaker's TV commercials for the Camry. Mostly, the actors just stare in awe while Toyota tells them, "You want it."

Toyota's sister division, though, will straighten its romantic act. Lexus went to Italy for recent LS 430 ads and to France for SC 430 ads by agency Team One. But in January, Lexus will switch to topical advertising for the brand, such as technology and performance. That I expect to get.

The Chrysler group's new marketing regime, which hailed from Ford Motor Co. earlier this year, has been chanting "emotion" since arriving. But which emotion is Dodge going for in the new Ram advertising? One TV commercial, by Chrysler group ad agency PentaMark Worldwide, shows the Ram driving across barren land on its way to the fictitious city of Truckville, passing an Aerosmith truck and a jet. If I hadn't already learned from Dodge execs that the Ram is supposed to be the mayor of Truckville, again, I would be confused. Wait! Knowing that, it still doesn't make sense.

Ram advertising would be successful if it played more off the new Dodge tag line, "Grab life by the horns," which only Dodge can own.

On the other hand, there's the Chrysler brand. The emotion it's going for is obvious - though the tag line, "Drive=Love," is not clearly Chrysler. Maybe the tragic events of Sept. 11 have sobered me too much, but an automaker shouldn't use such a serious word as "love" so whimsically.

General Motors' ad chief, CJ Fraleigh, says he will make sure that Cadillac advertising will exude more emotion. We'll see the first signs of that from ad agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in the January launches of the Escalade EXT, which is part sport-utility and part pickup, and the CTS sedan. Caddy dealers are pushing for a heritage connection. That could work.

Until Kia Motors America Inc.'s latest ads for its individual vehicles, I thought the automaker had one of the best formulas going, next to quirky Volkswagen. Kia has been using humor to connect with American audiences. I get that. You make me laugh, I feel happy.

Unfortunately, Kia and ad agency David and Goliath bombed with actors who compare how much they spent for what they got in Kias compared with competitors' vehicles. In a TV spot that compares the Sephia with the Toyota Corolla, for example, the actress who drinks water out of a flower vase at a restaurant is not funny. So now I feel annoyed.

Ford Division, for its 2002 Explorer, and Oldsmobile Division, since the December announcement of its demise, may appear to have given up on emotionally connecting with consumers. But both, using testimonial ads nationally, are tapping into an entirely different emotion: fear.

Ford, through ad agency J. Walter Thompson, and Oldsmobile, through Leo Burnett USA, hope that the customers who star in their commercials can instill trust in their brands. Sales numbers indicate that the strategy isn't working.

You can send e-mail to Julie Cantwell at

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