Importers warily watch patriotic ads

Patriotic retail advertising may be in vogue, but is it really selling any cars?

General Motors has been racking up sales, with dealers promoting the red, white and blue “Keep America Rolling” campaign. Coast to coast, auto dealers are attempting to beckon buyers into their showrooms with giant flags, patriotic slogans and made-in-America banners.

But after a decade of industry globalization and blurry corporate ties, such sales tactics may be less productive than in the past.

“Let’s be honest: What’s driving the market isn’t a buy-America push,” asserts Walter Huizenga, president of the non-Big 3 brand trade group, the American International Automobile Dealers Association in Alexandria, Va. “It’s 0 percent financing. We’re seeing some signs of manufacturers wrapping themselves in the flag. But that usually doesn’t get very far.”

Huizenga said AIADA is keeping a wary eye on advertising. The group observed a wave of patriotic Big 3-brand ads immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which appeared to die. But in the final days of October, the wave returned.

The watch

“We’ve noticed it picking up again,” Huizenga said. “Our fear is that as the pressure grows for the Big 3 to maintain market share and profits, we could see s a new wave of protectionism in the United States.

“A lot of the camaraderie that existed a year ago could just go away. It’s easy to be globalists when you’re selling everything you can make.”

The last big wave of imports vs. domestics sparring was a decade ago, when the U.S. economy tripped into a recession and Japanese market share grew. But the industry has changed since the early 1990s.

Import brands now build 70 percent of the vehicles they sell in North America in North American factories. The Big 3 have developed new overseas ties.

Nissan Motor Co., now controlled by France’s Renault SA, is spending $2 billion to expand its U.S. production base.

It already builds 100 percent of its pickups, Sentras, Altimas, Quests and Xterras in North American plants. That enabled Action Nissan in Nashville, Tenn., to advertise its inventory as “American made” during the past few weeks.

Toyota dealers could make similar claims: The manufacturer now builds the Camry, Corolla, Solara, Tundra, Sienna, Sequoia and Tacoma in the United States and Canada.

Perceptions

But Toyota retailers have mostly steered clear of the issue, said John McCandless, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. spokesman. “We feel that the fact that a vehicle is made in America typically doesn’t place high on a buyer’s list of considerations,” he said.

One recent consumer survey demonstrated the pitfalls of nationality-based-sales pitches. America Online conducted an online poll asking which vehicles qualified as American and which did not. Among the results:

  • 47 percent of the respondents believed the Chevrolet Avalanche did not qualify as American, since it is built in Mexico.

  • 34 percent ruled out the Chevrolet Prizm as American, since it’s built in a 50-50 joint venture between General Motors and Toyota in California.

  • 14 percent considered the Volvo S40 American, because the European automaker now is owned by Ford Motor Co.

    “We go to sleep sometimes,” Huizenga said. “Here inside the industry, we see that it is so obviously global that everybody must recognize how global it is. But we forget about the consumer’s perception.”

  • You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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