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Ad Track: Prius, Insight face off in battle of the green, hybrid ads

Toyota’s Harmony ad campaign uses costumed people and digital magic
to create a “human” landscape for Prius.

Honda’s Insight ad uses actors with dance backgrounds in well-choreographed patterns.

Article courtesy of Theresa Howard, USA TODAY
May 17, 2009

NEW YORK — Toyota and Honda are going emission to emission in ads for their new hybrids.

But the timing stinks. Thanks to the recession, auto sales are in the tank overall. And the drop in gasoline prices since last summer has deflated demand for gas-electric hybrids, which can have higher prices than equivalent traditional vehicles.

As the two Japanese automakers launch their latest hybrids, both are using upbeat ad campaigns that try to position hybrids as green, but mainstream, vehicles, not just niche products for a green elite.

“Honda and Toyota are very competitive … and try to show who’s the greenest and who has the best quality,” says Dave Cole, chairman of the Center on Automotive Research. “The challenge right now is that it’s hard to sell green. The market, in general, is spooked.”

Beyond aggressive populist ad campaigns, Toyota and Honda have been aggressive in pricing the base models to make their hybrids more affordable.

Honda’s smaller Insight, launched on Earth Day last month, starts at about $20,470 with shipping, and tops out short of $24,000. The third-generation Toyota Prius, arriving at dealers this month, will have a base model Prius I that Toyota says will start at $21,750. Toyota came in with the aggressive entry-level price after Honda’s Insight was a hit in Japan, where it was launched earlier this year.

“They both want to get into the position that you don’t have to be rich to be green,” says Cole.

Prius ads by Saatchi & Saatchi LA, bill it as “harmony between man, nature and machine.”

TV spots that will run for five months are extravagant, choreographed ads using people wearing grass, cloud and tree costumes to create a living landscape. As the car rolls through the landscape the “nature” people move with it.

“It’s a visual way to support the thought of harmony between man, nature and machine without it being a hollow statement,” says Kim McCullough, corporate manager, marketing communications, Toyota MotorSales.

Toyota’s Prius, which launched in the U.S. in 2000, has a loyal base of green buyers. The new message, and some new features, are designed to attract a broader audience. One new option is a glass moonroof with solar cells that power a parking ventilation system.

“The first-generation vehicle was really a little quirky and was a commuter car for a lot of people,” McCullough says. “With the changes in the model it really can be the primary car.”

Honda ads, by agency RPA in Santa Monica, have an Apple-esque feel and show different types of people popping out from behind each other. The message: It’s the hybrid designed and priced for us all.

“People like being green,” says Tom Peyton, Honda’s senior manager, national advertising. “It helps their purchase consideration if the price point is in the monthly (payment) range of what they are currently driving. If they have to pay a premium to be green it can be problematic.”

That can be especially important to bringing in younger buyers. “We did want to go after twentysomethings with the car,” Peyton says. “We think that’s a real opportunity with the car.”

The music and tone of the ads are designed to reach them. “The music and the feel have a very optimistic tone,” Peyton says. “In the current economic environment people are saying, ‘Show me happy ads. Give me optimism.’ That’s a very salient message right now.”

Here’s how Honda and Toyota created the ads promoting their new hybrids as vehicles for the masses:

• Honda. More than a dozen actors of all shapes and sizes move in a well-choreographed pattern to reveal other people behind them. The actors, many with dance backgrounds, rehearsed at length to get the timing right and then were shot without using computer trickery. Some scenes included layers of shots added digitally, however, to provide more action in the scene.

VIDEO: Watch the Honda Insight ad

“The goal is that people would see a little bit of magic each time they see the ad,” says Joe Baratelli, creative director at RPA. The music in the ads is from different up-and-coming artists: Great Lake Swimmers in the outdoor concert ad, The Mostar Diving Club in the beach ad and Rabbit in the outdoor garage ad. The songs and artist information are available at

• Toyota. Making the ads involved more than 200 people wearing nine nature costumes. They were then replicated digitally to create a human landscape of more than 1 million people on the screen. The ad took nine 12-hour days to film in a studio in New Zealand.

VIDEO: See the Toyota Prius ad

The newest airs Monday and features Prius towing a sun as it moves through the landscape. Singer Petra Haden was commissioned for three Prius ads in all, and the tracks will be available next month. “It’s such a challenge to get something that will break through on TV these days,” says Toyota’s Kim McCullough, marketing communications manager. “The ads may need to reveal themselves over time to viewers who may not even realize they are people.”

VIDEO: See the Prius sun ad

John Paul Strong

John Paul Strong combines his two decades of automotive marketing experience with a team of more than 150 professionals as owner and CEO of Strong Automotive.

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