TOKYO - Having lost one of their most persuasive pitchmen - the tax man - carmakers in Japan have launched a huge advertising and promotional effort to kick-start the slumping home market.
From late December until the end of March, carmakers here did not have to stretch too far to move product. Because Japan's national sales tax increased to 5 percent on April 1, automakers had only to pitch the same blunt message: Buy now to beat the tax increase.
The message worked like a charm. For the first time ever in a single month, new-vehicle sales in March topped 1 million units.
But now comes the morning after. With much of the year's demand already sated, April sales tumbled 15 percent from a year earlier to 438,855 units, while import sales slumped 37 percent.
May shapes up to be as bad, many industry observers say.
'In May, we will probably see a more serious reaction to March's craziness,' said Honda spokesman Yo Harada.
So Japan's auto industry is reaching for all the marketing weapons in its arsenal.
According to industry estimates, ad spending this year will exceed 1996's ¥289.8 billion, or about $2.5 billion at current exchange rates.
The current marketing push will peak in early summer, just in time to lure buyers with wallets fattened by summer bonuses. Those bonuses can equal three to five months' salary.
No one knows if the marketing push will be enough. Despite a strong first quarter and an expected flurry of new cars for this fall's Tokyo Motor Show, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association predicts that 1997 sales will be flat at 7 million.
Some of the new marketing funds will come from the foreign-exchange gains Japanese carmakers racked up when the dollar was trading at ¥125. Because most companies had assumed an exchange rate of about ¥106 or ¥107 to the dollar for the fiscal year ended March 31, the rate difference yielded enormous added profits.
The dollar's recent drop back below ¥120 will trim the windfall, but still leave plenty for extra advertising spending in a sluggish Japanese market.
'We all have money from the exchange rate that we'll be spending on marketing and incentives,' said Nissan Motor Co. Executive Vice President Tadao Takei. 'There's more of that now than a year ago, so spending will be up.'
Toyota Motor Corp. President Hiroshi Okuda said he had no doubt that Toyota will again be Japan's top advertising spender when the totals for 1996 are tallied. Toyota spent heavily last year in an unsuccessful attempt to regain a 40 percent market share in Japan.
'As long as we have that extra money from the yen, we'll be spending it on marketing here in Japan,' he said.
According to Director Ryuji Araki, Toyota's sales-related expenses increased by more than 20 percent in the fiscal year ended March 31. Araki said he hopes Toyota will be able to reduce sales and marketing expenses in the current fiscal year, but that is unlikely.
'Not with the new models they're launching,' said Edward Brogan, Tokyo-based auto analyst for Salomon Bros.
Toyota also is expected to unveil soon new dealership incentives and contests, pegged to the company's 60th anniversary.
MAZDA'S 'SIX PROMISES'
Toyota is not alone.
On May 8, Mazda Motor Corp. launched an ad campaign based on the theme of 'Six Promises' of customer satisfaction. Mazda President Henry Wallace and Mazda Domestic Dealership Association Chairman Kazutoyo Hashimoto appear side by side in the ads, affirming such promises as, 'We will explain the vehicle thoroughly upon delivery.'
Honda is trying a different tack. Returning to a strategy it used about five years ago, Honda bought up every ad slot for a weekly broadcast of a nationwide late-night TV show called 'U.S.'
The show highlights American culture, mainly sports. Honda's contract as sole sponsor of the show runs at least through September.
But Nissan's campaign promises to dwarf most of the others.
Under a 'Become More Nissan' tagline, Japan's No. 2 carmaker will release ads over the next six months promoting its new models, its safety and its technology, from wheelchair-accessible cars to Le Mans racers.
In all, the campaign will boost Nissan's ad spending 10 to 20 percent in the April-September fiscal first half compared with the year-earlier period, said Shinji Gonda of Nissan's advertising department.
In a move to set itself apart from the crowd, Nissan also is making what amounts to health claims for its cars.
Nissan plans to add three special features to all of its cars by year end: anti-bacterial steering wheels, glass that filters out harmful ultraviolet rays and air filters for the passenger compartment.
Although the three have been available separately before and from other makers, Nissan is packaging the set under a special 'Inner Green' label.
Gonda said the overall corporate image campaign was necessary because the company had become what he called 'faceless' to most Japanese consumers. The tagline 'Become More Nissan' aims to reassert some of the company's former public image as a technology leader, he said.
He admitted, though, that the campaign draws some of the same criticisms as Nissan's 'Enjoy the Ride' campaign in the United States: 'The salespeople point to the ads and demand, 'How many cars will that sell?''
With much smaller ad budgets, import car marketers rely on the financing skills they developed in less-regulated markets elsewhere to stand out in Japan.
The Japan arms of Jaguar and Rover are offering 1.9 percent and 1 percent car loans, respectively, from May through July. In addition, Rover and Chrysler Japan Sales Ltd. are offering what look and work much like subvented leases, although the financial packages technically are not leases.
From May 15 to June 30, BMW Japan Corp. began offering more than half off its BMW Service Free-Way package of virtually unlimited free maintenance for three years.