TV commercials by car companies making fuel economy claims tripled after gasoline prices spiked in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a study concludes.
Automakers insist the timing was coincidental. They say they began to emphasize fuel efficiency themes in their advertising before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in late August. Disruptions in the region's oil operations helped push gasoline prices to more than $3 a gallon across the country.
TNS Media Intelligence, a New York company that tracks national advertising, says just five of 120 new TV commercials from automakers that aired from Aug. 22-28 stressed fuel economy. Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 14, TNS says, 18 of 136 new automotive commercials featured fuel economy messages.
The study included all national broadcast networks, 45 cable channels and 600 TV stations, says Jon Swallen, TNS' senior vice president of research.
Even if the hurricane had not affected fuel prices, many car companies say they still would have made fuel economy a more prominent element of their marketing and advertising.
A corporate print and broadcast ad campaign by General Motors that began in May cites 20 GM models that get more than 30 mpg in highway driving. GM marketing director Bob Kraut says fuel efficiency has become one of the five factors consumers mention most often to explain their vehicle purchase decisions.
"I think this issue is going to be with us for the next couple of quarters," Kraut says. "We'll be there with messaging."
Ads for new versions of Chevrolet pickups and large SUVs will tout GM's fuel-saving displacement on demand technology, says Kim Kosak, Chevrolet's general director of advertising and sales promotion. The redesigned vehicles are due next year.
"We are very, very careful in how we position (Chevrolet's) Tahoe with this whole fuel economy" issue, Kosak told Automotive News. "That's a critical component of the Tahoe launch."
Chevrolet spokesman Michael Albano says that fuel economy also is a key theme of TV commercials for the company's 2006 models.
"Chevrolet had developed and planned to feature these ads prior to Katrina," Albano says. "Fuel prices had been on the rise for months."
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. is launching a $30 million ad campaign that promotes its Hybrid Synergy Drive technology. Separately, Toyota ran TV commercials in July and August touting nine of the company's models that get more than 30 mpg on the highway.
Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight says the company's consumer studies show that fuel economy has become an increasingly important factor in vehicle purchases.
Dodge is melding its marketing emphasis on performance with attention to fuel economy, says Steven Landry, vice president of Dodge marketing and product planning.
"People who come in to buy a car are more conscious of how many miles per gallon they are going to get and how big the engine is," Landry says.
Dealers spread word
Some auto dealers are supplementing car companies' national fuel economy message with their own TV commercials.
Bill Jacobs, president of the Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana Chevrolet Dealers, says that after Hurricane Katrina hit, the dealer group increased the share of fuel economy spots in its advertising mix.
"We were sprinkling them in the mix about 5 to 10 percent," Jacobs says. "Then it became a real issue, so we moved it up to 35 percent."
Jacobs says consumers do not perceive GM as a leader in offering fuel-efficient cars.
"I think if anything, we're not doing enough," he says. "The thing that's frustrating is that we have a really good news story to tell in this arena and nobody knows it. So to shift our advertising properly to get that message across and still sell the vehicles is a huge challenge."
Other automakers say they do not plan to make fuel efficiency a dominant and explicit theme of their corporate advertising. Asked whether gas mileage will become a part of the ad campaign for Ford Motor Co.'s SUVs, marketing Vice President Darryl Hazel says, "Performance will be a part of the campaign."
Chris Perry, national advertising manager for Hyundai Motor America, says fuel economy "is a critical issue for consumers." But he says there are "other aspects of our vehicles that we want to promote as well.
"Hyundai has a strong image with good miles per gallon," Perry says. "We might be leaning toward more of a safety message."
Terri Hines, a spokeswoman for Nissan North America Inc., says the company does not have a brand spot devoted to fuel efficiency. But she says Nissan plans fuel economy ads for some 2006 models that have not been introduced.
General Motors, like other car companies, made fuel economy a marketing message as the price of gasoline reached $3 a gallon.