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Ad spending declines in Q1; 2008 seen as a down year

DETROIT -- Amid the U.S. auto industry’s worst new-vehicle sales year in a decade, all but the top two automakers -- General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. -- hit the brakes on measured media spending in the first quarter.

And it doesn’t look like they’ll be letting up soon.

Both automakers beefed up TV spending through March: GM to $309 million from $297 million a year ago and Toyota to $141 million from $119.8 million. They also increased online ad outlays: GM to $48 million from $30 million a year ago and Toyota to $22 million from $15 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Experts disagree whether the industry’s early-year expenditures will bring a cloud to the upfront for the segment. The upfront is when automakers and other marketers negotiate next season’s ad rates with TV networks.

“There’s a lot of pressure on traditional media” at the car companies, says Ian Beavis, the former Kia vice president of marketing who joined media agency Carat in April as an executive vice president.

Beavis, whose 30 years of experience is mostly in auto marketing, predicted the auto category in the upfront will be down this year from 2007, due to the “tremendous financial pressures” sparked by the expected decline of 1 million total U.S. new-vehicle sales this year.

Trying to boost results

Beavis says carmakers are paying more attention to their marketing return on investment, especially at companies that are trying to rebound in their home markets, including the Detroit 3.

Dave Allen, principal of the Richards Group Inc., of Dallas, predicted spending will fall by year end.

“The car companies are fighting for share, especially Detroit, which has to give up share for profits,” says Allen, who headed Hyundai’s national creative account at the agency until early last year. He also projected more online spending, with magazines and broadcast TV networks taking the hit.

New-vehicle introductions

Spending often depends on the cadence of new-vehicle launches, and several automakers may hold their ad dollars until crucial models arrive. Examples: Ford’s redone F-150 full-sized pickup and Chrysler’s newest-generation Dodge Ram pickup, are coming this fall. Hyundai will launch the Genesis sedan this month with a budget one of its prominent dealers valued at a record $80 million, including heavy TV backing.

The companies with key vehicle introductions will spend big to ensure successful launches, and competitors historically have beefed up ad support for their older models to maintain share.

Online, Nissan Motor Co. spent only $3.5 million on ads through March compared with $12.8 million a year ago; Chrysler LLC spent $12.8 million in the first quarter, $4 million less than a year ago; and American Honda Motor Co.’s spending was flat, according to TNS, though the figures do not take into account such things as Web sites and e-mail promotions.

But digital is becoming vastly more important. Some 71 percent of Americans shop online before buying a car, said Stephen Berkov, who joined auto site Edmunds.com as executive director of client strategy this year after eight years in Audi of America marketing.

Automakers think it’s a waste of ad dollars in this economic climate to try to persuade Americans who aren’t predisposed to buy a new vehicle, said Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts.

He predicted an uptick in advertising in the third and fourth quarters, if the economy improves by the third quarter. But, he said, if the economy doesn’t rebound a bit by then, “we’ll continue to see delays in marketing expenditures.”

You can reach Jean Halliday at jhalliday42@gmail.com

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