Gentlemen, start your (Net) engines

Summary:Car makers gear up to pitch new models on the Web.

There's little doubt the Internet is revolutionizing the way the near-trillion-dollar auto industry thinks about selling cars.

From Detroit to the Japanese and European manufacturers, carmakers are spending millions on their Internet initiatives as a way to capture more buyers. But you'd hardly know it from most car commercials, which until now have acknowledged the Internet with little more than a flash of a blurry URL at the end of the TV ad.

Car commercials typically indulge consumer fantasies with slick images of perfect, curvy roads, projecting an attitude of sophisticated cool or macho ruggedness. But if new TV and magazine ad campaigns targeting young buyers from the likes of Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Toyota are any indication, the year 2000 car model season will be the year of the Internet.

Automobile manufacturers have been slow to embrace the Internet in their general advertising. "Car companies want to sell the car, not the Web site," says Peter Brown, editor-in-chief of Automotive News, explaining the Web's absence in most auto ads. "The Web is looked at as a marketing medium, not as a way to sell cars."

But when the "NetGen" (that is, the next generation of car buyers, who spend more time online than watching TV) breaks away from the Internet to tune in the MTV Video Music Awards Thursday, they can expect to see the first of a series of live ads for the Ford Focus, a campaign in which the new sedan's Web site plays a major role.

In the live ad, actress Annabelle Gurwitch, host of TBS's "Dinner and a Movie," will be seen driving around Manhattan in a Ford Focus, asking people for directions to the MTV Awards, staged live from the Metropolitan Opera.

The TV audience may also hear her spontaneously hype the new car's Web site at www.focus247.com, says Bill George, Ford division public affairs manager.

In subsequent versions of the freeform commercials - almost 60 will air on TV by March - Gurwitch will likely prompt viewers to visit the Focus Web site and possibly even ask them to volunteer ideas for future commercials online.

Car commercial convergence
The live Ford commercials not only break the slick mold of cliched car advertising, but will also promote Ford's Web site extensively.

Call it the ultimate in car commercial convergence.

"The Web will be integral to the whole campaign," says Ford's George. "We're trying to change what typical car advertising has been, and it makes sense to talk about the Web."

In a way, the Focus ad campaign was inspired by how young people use the Internet.

"Young buyers are used to living life in the moment and getting information quickly on the Internet, that's why we're moving in that direction in marketing," says George.

Ford not alone
Ford's not the only car company trying a Web message in its mainstream ads. Next week Toyota breaks new ads for the Echo which will make an upfront pitch for the car's Web site. "We'll definitely do more marketing to get people to the Web site in the future," says spokesman Mike Michaels, although he declined to discuss specifics about the Echo campaign. "Our Internet initiatives will pertain more to the Celica and Echo, which are targeted to younger buyers."

For Oldsmobile's Intrigue, commercials produced for the 25th anniversary celebration of "Saturday Night Live" specifically prompt people to go to the Web site to see the new model.

In the TV commercial for the new Oldsmobile Alero, the youngest skewing of Oldsmobile's models, a frog slides down a window because, as the voiceover explains, he doesn't have the active response system, a group of features that give the car better control and handling.

The voiceover continues, "if the frog wanted to know more about the active response system, this is where he would go," as the www.alero.com URL appears prominently above. "It's a visual cue to pique your interest to learn more," says Alero's brand manager, Bob Clark, of the TV commercials' Internet tease.

Furthermore, in Alero magazine ads appearing in September, the "sole purpose is to encourage people to go to the Web site," says Li-Yuen Yee, Alero's interactive marketing manager.

Then there's DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser, a retro-style minivan due sometime in spring 2000. TV commercials haven't hit yet, but ads in car enthusiast magazines show only the teaser line "www.ptcruiser.com is coming."

Web-savvy carmakers
Other than Ford's campaign, the new commercials may not be earth-shattering in the way they weave the Net into the ad, but the message is clear: the auto manufacturers want their customer to know how Web-savvy they are.

It's not hard to figure out why. Nearly 40 percent of all new car buyers have used the Internet this year to help them gather information before buying, according to a J.D. Power study. Meanwhile the Internet auto buying sites like Autobytel - which are more competitive with the auto manufacturers and dealers for car shoppers doing Net research than either would like to admit - are spending heavily to build their own brands.

For example, CarMax.com plans to spend $50 million in advertising next year. CarsDirect.com recently launched a $20 million advertising campaign through the end of the year, while Autobytel.com coughed up $15 million for its fall campaign. (Microsoft, which is a partner in MSNBC, operates the CarPoint.com Internet buying site.)

That may be a drop in the bucket compared to the $9.6 billion the automotive manufacturers spent across all media in 1998, according to Competitive Media Reporting. But it's enough to snag a growing number of customers.

"More customers are going to third-party sites [like Autobytel] and non-dealer sites because they provide a more objective point of view," says Adam Weiner, senior analyst with Gomez Advisors. "One of the biggest challenges for the automakers is providing a high-quality Internet offering, building brand and leading consumers deep into the buying process."

However, not everyone is catching Web fever in their ads.

"Our customers are sophisticated enough to figure out we have a Web site," says Bill Cyphers, vice president of marketing at Subaru, explaining why commercials for the new Legacy and Outback models only show a tiny URL, in a corner of the screen, at the end of the ad. "I don't think you need much more than a URL to promote [the cars] in normal ads."

"Car companies won't promote their Web sites because the manufacturers make no money off a Web sale," says Jim Hall, industry analyst with AutoPacific.

"We've tried to be discreet," says Bob Austin, marketing executive at Volvo, noting that more than half of Volvo car owners are online. "The other solution is to [superimpose] the URL over the whole ad from end to end, and then you look like a direct marketer."

Topics: Tech Industry

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