1. Archive

Nissan's ads not a hit in showrooms

Published Apr. 21, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

It was, by many measures, the most successful TV commercial of 1996.

Time and Rolling Stone crowned it the best ad of the year. Oprah Winfrey devoted a segment to the young West Coast admen who created it. Sony is planning to turn the ad into a pilot for a television series.

The commercial was TBWA Chiat/Day's "Toys" ad for Nissan, in which a toy soldier falls from the jaws of a dinosaur into the seat of a tiny sports car.

For all the good press, though, there was a problem: While the ad was running, sales were falling.

In September 1996, when the ad made its debut, U.S. sales at Nissan fell 2.7 percent, compared with the same month in 1995. Sales then fell 10.2 percent in October, 4.2 percent in November and 1.6 percent in December. Business improved in January after Nissan started pushing big incentives to counter archrivals Toyota and Honda, which had introduced new models.

To Nissan dealers across the country, the message was clear: Many people loved this commercial and others like it, but the ad campaign seemed to have a life of its own, detached from the business of selling cars. "It isn't anything that makes anyone go out and say, "Hey, I need to go buy a Nissan,' " said Bob Swanson, general manager and president of Bankston Nissan in Irving, Texas.

The Nissan campaign tells a great deal about the state of the advertising industry today. More than ever, agencies make ads that create a buzz but have little to do with the products their clients sell.

In a new commercial for the Honda Acura, the car itself is nowhere in sight _ there is just a blur and a whooshing sound of a car too fast to be seen. An ad for Mercedes-Benz features no reference to cars at all, just a close-up of a giant yellow rubber duck, its pupils adorned with the automaker's logo. Sneaker titan Nike, which helped set off the mania for hip image ads, has been running commercials featuring a collage of random images: a sandcastle, a TV set in a bathroom, a typed message reading "What's happening, please advise." The ads have no company name, just the swoosh logo.

Do such ads boost sales? To some agencies, that isn't the point. Fallon McElligott, the hot Minneapolis agency, surprised many TV viewers when it pitched McDonald's Corp.'s Arch Deluxe with commercials that showed kids disgusted by the new burger. After McDonald's hastily brought in another agency to make conventional ads about how good Arch Deluxe tastes, Fallon said its commercials were a success because they had created great "awareness" of the burger.

For Nissan, the roots of the Toys ad go back to the fall of 1995. The world's fifth-largest car company, formerly known in the United States as Datsun, had finished one of the most successful car launches in history, the bullet-shaped Altima. But at its U.S. headquarters in Gardena, Calif., Nissan Motor Corp. USA chief Bob Thomas wanted something more.

"We just weren't making the impact with the buying public that we thought we deserved," Thomas said. "Our imagery ... wasn't at the same level as our sales." After years of offering aggressive deals and discounts, he worried that Nissan's image amounted to this: the car company that will cut you a deal.

Thomas coveted a splashy icon that would do for Nissan what a little bunny did for Energizer batteries. So he went to TBWA Chiat/Day, a unit of New York-based Omnicom Group Inc. The ad agency is based in a Venice Beach, Calif., building shaped like a giant pair of binoculars. It was the birthplace of some unforgettable ads: the "1984" Super Bowl ad for Apple's Macintosh, a Reebok commercial featuring a bungee-jumper slipping out of his sneakers, and the Energizer bunny.

TBWA Chiat/Day also was the epicenter of a movement sweeping the industry. Not long ago, the conventional wisdom on Madison Avenue held that advertising was all about giving people a compelling reason to buy a product. TBWA Chiat/Day believed advertising could have a different goal: to create flashy images for a client and turn the company's name into a household name. Image ads, as far back as the Marlboro cowboy, had worked wonders for some advertisers trying to stand out in a sea of look-alikes. But at TBWA Chiat/Day, the top brass were convinced that most consumer products had become indistinguishable from their rivals and needed brand images to succeed.

"Brands in the '90s don't fail through rejection but lack of interest," said Adam Morgan, an agency executive. "Unless you're a very big company and have tons of money and can ram your message down people's throats, you have to do something very different."

That argument has long seemed persuasive when it comes to colas or sneakers _ where the differences between products are largely cosmetic, and paying extra for a brand image doesn't inflate the price much. But does it justify running an all-image ad for something as expensive and complicated as a car?

TBWA Chiat/Day's legendary creative chief Lee Clow, a Los Angeles native with a flowing white beard, was confident it did. "A car," he says, "is just a $25,000 suit of clothes that you drive every day for three years."

At the agency, Nissan's latest assignment went to a 33-year-old rising star named Rob Siltanen. He had grown up in a family that loved Hondas, and he understood the challenge Nissan faced. Put in charge of the Nissan account at TBWA Chiat/Day when he was just 26, he was responsible for some straightforward ads that helped the Altima take off. One ad, featuring a pyramid of wine glasses on the hood of the car, sent the message that Nissan had the smoothness of a luxury car at a fraction of the price.

The agency had research showing that customers hated traditional car ads. So the ad makers set out to invent something very different. Where most car commercials dwell lovingly on sleek appearances and advanced features, this team saw that approach as mere "sheet metal." Instead, Nissan's ads would be "entertaining, fun and make you feel good," Clow says.

Nissan's marketing team members came up with their own version of the Energizer bunny: They wanted to use an actor to portray Yutaka Katayama, the original, quirky head of Nissan's U.S. operations. More than a decade after he retired, after clashes with his bosses in Japan, he was still revered inside Nissan for bringing the United States the first affordable Japanese sports car, the Datsun 240z.

"He would be the brand connector," Thomas said. "It's much easier to be stewards of Mr. K's heritage than it is to be the manager of a financial statement."

Clow seized on the idea of dropping "Mr. K" into commercials. He and Siltanen began cooking up some of the strangest car ads ever seen on television. One features a mysterious journey down an asphalt road cutting through a weird landscape. An actor repeatedly pops up with a sign reading "Smile." There is no car in sight and no mention of any sponsor until the closing seconds, when a Nissan hood emblem floats over the road's surface. Nor is there any explanation that the actor represents Katayama, or even who Katayama is.

Another ad, dubbed "Dream Garage," follows a young boy chasing a stray baseball into an old barn. He falls through a trap door into a garage stuffed with Datsuns and Nissans. There, he runs into Mr. K, who moves from one car to another at a superhuman speed. "Life's a journey. Enjoy the ride," he tells the boy.

The campaign's main event was still to come. Siltanen had long been turning over in his head a commercial that would feature a miniature car driving out of a magazine ad and cruising off the page. Now, he gave it one more twist: a toy action figure.

Siltanen turned to Will Vinton Studios in Portland, Ore., the animators who came up with live M&Ms and dancing California raisins. He ordered an ad with stop-motion animation and plastic dolls with clay facial expressions.

For the car, Siltanen picked a version of Nissan's famous long-nosed Z car. Unfortunately, Nissan was getting ready to discontinue that model, but the automaker wasn't worried. It looked like "the type of remote-control car that a kid would have," Siltanen explains.

A 16-person team at Vinton built everything from scratch, including the toy car and a dollhouse with two bedrooms. It took 4{ weeks to design and make the dolls and their clothes. Then the team spent weeks shooting the toy sequences in stop-motion at a rate of three seconds a day.

Meanwhile, TBWA Chiat/Day and Vinton were sparing no effort to pick a soundtrack for the 60-second ad. Siltanen set his heart on Van Halen's version of the Kinks' You Really Got Me. Van Halen initially sent word that they had no interest in granting rights for a commercial, so Nissan brought them around by giving each of the four band members his own new Z car. Nissan won't disclose the cost to produce the ad, but industry estimates peg it at more than $1-million.

The ad made its debut Sept. 9 and set off a storm of ovations. "Lee Clow has nothing left to prove," declared a headline in USA Today. Entertainment Weekly hailed "the year's most turbo-charged spot." Oprah Winfrey gushed about how "critics are calling Nissan's car commercial one of the most entertaining things on TV _ and it doesn't even use real actors!" She then revealed that one of the dolls wore a custom-made Wonderbra.

Meanwhile, viewers began calling Nissan with requests for products connected to the ad. By mid-March, the company had sold more than 25,000 T-shirts featuring the dolls and the little car.

At Sony Corp.'s Columbia TriStar TV division, programing executive Russ Krasnoff called TBWA Chiat/Day. "I said, "I want to see more, and I wonder what they're going to do next.' And if I have an attitude that I want to see more, then maybe there should be more of it." Krasnoff said he plans to turn the ad into a comedy pilot aimed at the mid-1997 TV season.

All that excitement, though, was lost on many Nissan dealers. Toyota Motor Corp. was in the midst of a roaring fall, thanks to a new Camry backed by lower prices. Honda Motor Co. was aggressively pushing a new Civic. Meanwhile, Nissan had no new models to promote, making this "an ideal time to launch the brand campaign," says Don Spetner, a vice president for the automaker.

Many Nissan dealers, though, were mystified by the campaign, particularly the "Toys" ad. "I thought it was a great commercial, but they were trying to advertise a car they don't make anymore," said Steven Gomes, general manager of the Riverhead Auto Mall on New York's Long Island. "It didn't sell cars."

Said Lenny Larrea, general manager of Bill Seidle's Nissan in Miami: "They are beautiful commercials, but I don't think they're bringing people into the showroom." His verdict: "People are still shopping price."

Anxieties rose further in January when Nissan disclosed plans to offer early retirement and buyouts to 2,500 North American employees. Finally, under pressure to hit sales targets for the fiscal year ended in March, Nissan resorted to offering heavy discounts _ exactly the image Thomas wanted to avoid.

Sales shot up 10.7 percent and 15.5 percent in January and February. Meanwhile, TBWA Chiat/Day began a batch of more conventional ads touting features of Nissan models _ a plan the agency says it had all along for this stage of the campaign.

Some dealers are relieved. "Now I can start selling cars instead of dogs or pigeons," said Mike Tynan, owner of Tynan's Nissan Inc. in Aurora, Colo.

"Toys" trivia

+ The Nissan "Toys" spot, directed by Kinka Usher and animated by Mark Gustafson was filmed in an abandoned airplane hanger in Oregon.

+ Rick Keen, the operator of the remote-controlled Z, is one of the top remote-control car drivers in the country.

+ The hardest live-action shot involved getting the cat to jump over the car. Most of the time, the cat just looked at it.

+ At first the animator moved the characters once for every frame of film. The effect was too smooth, so frames were skipped for a more jerky feel.

+ Actual actors were cast and copied for the look of the dolls _ whose names, by the way, are Nick, Roxanne and Tad.

Source: Nissan


This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge