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U.S. automakers tout 3rd-party awards in latest ad campaigns

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U.S. automakers tout 3rd-party awards in latest ad campaigns

Toyota's recall woes are chance to shine



Drive by Chrysler's Auburn Hills headquarters, and you'll surely notice that the building is wrapped in a 140-foot tall, 120-foot wide banner touting the company's latest award from Motor Trend.

"How do the editors of Consumers Digest determine if a car is a Best Buy?" a narrator in one TV spot begins, as five of the seven Chevrolet vehicles to win the 2010 Best Buy ratings are displayed. "First, they drive it in the real world and put it through its paces. ... In short, they do what you do to test its quality."

With Toyota's image as the quality leader tarnished in the wake of global recalls, automakers have been flooding the airways with messages about reliability and quality in hopes of differentiating themselves with third-party quality honors and awards.

"For the first time in decades, the Detroit car companies can claim quality superiority, or at least parity, that is going to be believable," Julie Roehm, a former top Chrysler marketing executive, told the Free Press in an e-mail.

Automakers' spending on advertising increased by 36% in February compared with the same month last year, according to early estimates by Kantar Media, a company that tracks advertising spending. February is the last month for which information was readily available. GM's spending was up 38% in February. Chrysler's spending was up 53.4% in February.

While Paul Edwards, GM's executive director of marketing strategy, says Toyota's ills have nothing to do with GM's new campaigns, he noted that "with the Toyota incidents of weeks past ... people are now receptive to the messages we have out there."

Using third-party awards in marketing is a classic advertising technique, marketing experts said. "It's the oldest game in the business," Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, said. "If you don't have them, you can't say anything. If you have them, then boy you better stroll those puppies out there."

But the value of the endorsements can vary, and automakers even pay for some of them.

Jocelyn Johnson, a spokesperson for Motor Trend, said the magazine does not charge a licensing fee to award winners. "That might be considered a conflict with editorial judging and evaluation," she said in an e-mail.

A notable part of GM's recent campaign includes mention of Consumers Digest's Best Buy ratings. Mention of the awards came after GM rolled out its "May the Best Car Win" campaign last fall, which compares GM vehicles with those of competitors.

"Consumers have told us that these are some of the most compelling communications that we've ever developed," Edwards said.

That is helping GM in its fight to keep market share at the same time it wraps up the elimination of four brands -- Pontiac, Saab, Saturn and Hummer. GM sales are up 14% through April, while industry sales are up even more, 16.7%. That caused GM's market share to dip slightly, to 18.7%, through April.

Consumers Digest Publisher Randy Weber said he charges a licensing fee of $35,000 to GM to use the Best Buy rating for each model being touted.

The licensing fees don't impact the magazine's recommendations, he said. "You can't buy your way into getting a Best Buy rating at Consumers Digest," he said. "Never have, never will, because I know that if I let that happen even for one second, the value of my brand goes down the drain."

GM's use of the Consumers Digest endorsement has been good for his publication.

"It's good for me," Weber said.

Bernacchi, the marketing professor, said customers have come to expect that award winners are paying something. "Twenty years ago, there would have been an uproar," he said. Today, he added, people would ask, "Why wouldn't they pay for it?"

Nevertheless, consumers advocate Joe Ridout of Consumer Action, is skeptical of the value to consumers. "Once money enters into the equation, it necessarily is going to distort the results," he said.



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