Values & Vehicles & Advertising

On June 29th, The Washington Post printed a full-page ad, “Driving American Innovation.” Paid for by Ford Motor Company, it touts Ford’s foray into ethanol. The next day, on the front page of its business section, The New York Times covered Ford’s plans to focus less on hybrids and more on flex-fuel vehicles, because, the car manufacturer explained, flex-fuel “takes little new investment.”

In the ad, beneath a giant highway sign for a fictional Interstate E-85 and two ears of green and yellow corn, Ford says: “Announcing the Midwest Ethanol Corridor, a brand new way to drive between Chicago and Kansas City, made possible by Ford Motor Company. With filling stations delivering E-85 ethanol along the I-55 and I-70 corridor, it’s an innovation that’s reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. Visit www.VE85.com or www.E85fuel.com for more information and exact locations.”

This “innovation” (ethanol from corn as depicted in the ad) was discovered decades ago, but who’s (ac)counting. On the upside, Ford’s chief told The New York Times that the venture into flex-fuel vehicles is part of a broader program to produce cleaner, more efficient vehicles. A couple of days after Ford’s announcement, a contributor to The Denver Post, a student of sustainable agriculture in the Midwest, explained the biological limitations and environmental downsides of ethanol and argued for fuel efficiency and hybrids. (No matter. Ethanol has arrived, and it’s growing. Senator Ken Salazar applauded the opening of Colorado ethanol plants in plenary remarks to Solar2006, a solar conference held this week in Denver.)

In the Times article, in the jump to page two, Jo Cooper of Toyota and Mark LaNeve of GM comment on motivations behind customer car purchases. Toyota’s Cooper told the paper that hybrids appeal to customers for a variety of reasons, beyond fuel economy: “‘…People love them because they’re different. They love them because they feel like they’re making a contribution’ to helping the environment.” Toyota understands customers. LaNeve of GM told the paper: “The Japanese reputation for fuel economy really got set back in the ‘70s. This shows you how long it takes, how embedded some customers’ opinions are, and how long it takes to change those opinions.”

Building a brand image around fuel economy, or consumer interest in the environment, public health or national security, takes time, yes, but car manufacturers have to earn it, too – which means segmenting your markets and delivering. It means understanding customers’ multiple values and attitudes. Not everyone wants a Hummer; not everyone wants a hybrid. And not everyone wants a hybrid for the same reasons. Marketing strategy and communications should reflect, and respond to, those different values and attitudes.

The public is reading about inequality and the American dream (The Economist), climate change (Time magazine and elsewhere), Iraq/Iran and oil (you pick), the rising and uncertain price of petrol (throw a dart) and the connection between terrorism and current energy policies (Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine via The New York Times). What does GM read, The Detroit Navel-Gazer?

A perusal of vehicle ads in Rolling Stone’s 1,000th issue (May 18-June 1, 2006) suggests so. GM’s Hummer3 (starting at $29,500, no fuel estimates) leads the car ads: “Now you can get one before you ink the record deal.” The second car ad – at the other end of the values spectrum – is for Toyota’s Yaris Tames (starting at @12,405, 40mpg). In the next ad, BMW sells the fuel efficiency of the Mini Cooper in a joint message with The Nature Conservancy – whose logo takes up a third of the page. (“Let’s make room for mother nature. Let’s not hog the road or the page. Let’s conserve space as well as fuel. Let’s leave a small footprint and an even smaller tire track. Let’s hug trees as tightly as we hug corners. Let’s motor.”) Escalade goes for a big, shiny, bling ad – which makes me wonder how soccer-driving moms feel behind the wheel of an Escalade. (Like Crystal champagne, the Escalade is a hip-hop brand-of-choice). Chevy’s still musing egocentrically about innovation. Ford tries to get hip using the singing duo Klik – and a malfunctioning vending machine: “Life.” Finishing off its presence in Rolling Stone, GM chooses a vertical, washed-out ad…on leaky oil. (“It’s amazing what you’ll forget when you own a GM certified used vehicle.”)

Yes, it’s amazing. In mid-June, E&ETV interviewed US Representative Bart Stupak (D-Michigan). I distinctly remember his sleekly coifed salt-and-pepper hair and his comments about the habits of the American car buyer. He said Americans want big SUVs – that’s what “his” people in Michigan want – and so, that’s what GM sells. I was astounded.

Harper’s Index
Factor by which Hummer sales in April exceeded those a year earlier : 3
Percentage change in average U.S. gas prices over that year : +80
Volume of new reserves added by major oil companies in 2005, expressed as a percentage of oil pumped that year : 51
Ratio of the amount of energy used in producing corn ethanol to the amount yielded when it is burned in gasoline : 1:1
Ratio of the amount of energy used in producing gasoline itself to the amount yielded when it is burned : 6:5

Kick the Oil Habit
The Center for American Progress Action Fund explains its campaign, “Kick the Oil Habit”, on E&ETV. The Center is taking a consumer-oriented, popular-culture outreach strategy using TV and other mediums to motivate the American people to reduce their addiction to oil. Log on and send a message to Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, Valero, and ConocoPhillips.

Disturbing statistics
The New York Times ran an article, interestingly juxtaposed below the Ford article on flex-fuel vehicles, on carbon emissions by the oil industry with a graph titled, “Burning more energy.” “For all the interest in alternative energy sources, the world economy remains highly dependent on fossil fuels, with consumption of them expected to double over the next 25 years. As a result, the oil industry is under increasing pressure to control carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. Without controls, emissions are projected to increase at a faster rate than over the last two decades.”

The Economist Roundup
Periodically, I peruse the issues of my father’s annual Christmas gift, a subscription to The Economist, looking for signs that clean energy matters to the globalized market set. (I can mitigate the cognitive dissonance of this activity by limiting my concurrent intake of Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, and magazines like yes! and Plenty.) Last week’s roundup lassoed two articles on wind power (“Wind power in Texas, Blowing Strong. The oil and gas state is bullish about a new sort of energy” and the Blowhard piece “Wind power has propelled Tulsi Tanti into the ranks of India’s corporate titans.”) There are no ads for anything related to clean energy. There is, however, a call by McKinsey & Company for petroleum consultants. McKinsey is expanding its global services in petroleum exploration and production, refining, trading, and/or marketing activities. The ad is titled, “Fuelling the Future” (with two ‘l’s).

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