He points to an ad for the trusty RX crossover, Lexus' top seller, that aired across sports, cable, late night and prime time. It shows a young, attractive couple making eyes at each other over the course of a date that proceeds from a cocktail party to a restaurant to a pool hall and ultimately to the bedroom. The tone of the ad changes at dawn, when the sleeping couple's kids tumble into the bed with them.
Smith said the ads have been "definitely touching people in a different way."
The changing direction of the brand and the advertising "makes sense" and will allow Lexus to better compete with BMW, which attracts more younger buyers, said Tom Libby, an analyst at IHS Automotive.
He said that adding edginess won't alienate older buyers, provided Lexus doesn't go too far. If the RX ad hadn't ended in a family-friendly way, he said, it could have stirred a backlash.
Still, Jeff Bracken, Lexus' general manager, said the brand must be willing to err on the side of danger. At an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit last month, he cited one customer, who had owned six Lexus vehicles, complaining that the tone of one of the new spots had ventured too far from the Lexus DNA. But without taking such risks, he said, Lexus won't be able to grow.
Lexus, which held the U.S. luxury crown for a decade through 2010, is now at No. 3 in the segment, running behind No. 2 Mercedes-Benz, with a recent crop of sportier models helping to narrow the gap.
Peter Blackstock, owner of Lexus Monterey Peninsula, in Seaside, Calif., says the new approach will appeal to "a whole new generation."
He said the CT hybrid and redesigned IS sedan have been a "huge hit" among younger buyers.
"If you look at what's happening with our sales and the products we're getting, the marketing is working," he said.