American Honda Motor Company

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American Honda Motor Company

1919 Torrance Blvd.
Torrance, California 90501-2722
Telephone: (310) 783-2000
Fax: (310) 783-2110
Web site:



In 1998 advertising agency Rubin Postaer of Santa Monica developed a campaign for the American Honda Motor Company that was set in a corporate world from which workers yearned to escape. The ads proposed the Honda Civic both as the enticement for getting away from the responsibilities of work and as the means of escape. This approach attempted to solve a difficult targeting problem: how to appeal to the spirit of younger buyers, who were adopting the Civic as their signature car, while still acknowledging the demographic group who could better afford to buy the car, 30- and 40-something professionals as well as the baby boomer parents of the younger buyers. Rubin Postaer solved the problem by portraying the everyday situation of the older audience with the spirit of a younger attitude. The subtext of the ads suggested that a person could fulfill his responsibilities with the Civic while also managing to inject some fun into the equation.

The tag line of the campaign asked, "What about Now?," focusing attention on the present. The print as well as the television campaign juxtaposed images of work with symbols of recreation. Each print execution featured a small picture of a Civic with a roof rack holding a stereotypical piece of recreational equipment. One print ad pictured a pair of sand-covered pumps, suggesting that the owner had just visited the beach, while the roof rack on the Civic held a surfboard. Another ad showed a pinstriped suit on a hanger, with a lift pass to "Mt. Doom" affixed to its bottom button, while the Civic had skis on the roof rack. A final ad filled the page with an open briefcase revealing a fish on ice and the Civic with a fishing pole strapped on top.

The television commercial entitled "Snorkeling" similarly explored the line between work and play, investigating their odd points of convergence. This spot started with an underwater scene and then revealed a business-suited man swimming in snorkeling gear. When the camera surfaced above the water, it revealed a Honda Civic awaiting the man on the beach. The voice-over said that the businessman was supposed to be attending a symposium but that his attention had been drawn elsewhere—to his automobile, which promised more excitement than a conference. The spot "Leaving Early" created an Orwellian atmosphere of the totalitarianism of modern work, against which was set the liberation of fleeing with the assistance of a Honda Civic. A man's offhand comment about leaving work early was overheard and set in motion an elaborate series of countermeasures designed to prevent his departure. The final scene showed the man fleeing in his Civic, barely making it through the closing gate and leaving behind the helicopters and cars pursuing him.


The Honda Motor Company was founded by Soichiro Honda in 1948. In 1990 Nobuhiko Kawamoto, an engineer who had joined Honda's research department in 1963, became president and chief executive. Honda's success reached a peak in the 1980s, but the lean economy of the 1990s pushed the company to the verge of being bought out by rival Mitsubishi Motors. Instead, in 1992 Kawamoto restructured the company by slashing his beloved Formula One racing division and by introducing a top-down management style, with performance-based promotions replacing Honda's collegial corporate culture based on seniority. Even more important, Kawamoto divested his fellow engineers of sole decision-making power, handing over more power to those who manufactured and marketed the automobiles. The move allowed Honda to take into account consumer input and preferences when building its automobiles.

The marketing of Honda automobiles in the United States dated back to 1970, when the Los Angeles office of advertising agency Chiat Day introduced American drivers to the N600 model. In 1974, when Honda was selling a mere 43,000 cars per year, Gerry Rubin arrived at Needham Harper Steers (now DDB Needham), which had just taken the account away from Chiat Day in time to introduce Honda's newest model, the Civic. Needham responded to the new assignment by focusing attention on the car itself. An early commercial depicted a family loading groceries into a Civic hatchback, and in 1978, at the height of the oil crisis, print ads for the Civic highlighted the fact that it ran on regular as well as unleaded gasoline. In 1986 Larry Postaer joined Gerry Rubin at Needham, and later that year they broke off to establish their own agency, Rubin Postaer, to service the Honda account. Honda exhibited great confidence in the new agency by awarding it the $100 million account without a public review.


As the young drivers who had originally favored Hondas grew older, the company struggled to maintain the interest of this aging demographic group while simultaneously generating interest from younger drivers. Fortunately for Honda, the younger generation adopted the Civic as its unofficial automobile. This demographic group, sometimes known as Generation Y, numbered approximately 77 million people born since 1979 and was about twice as large as its predecessor, Generation X. According to a 1999 survey of 2,000 young people conducted by Chicago-based Teenage Research Unlimited Inc., 6 percent of teenagers owned new cars, and 12 percent planned on buying a new car within the year. Rival carmaker Toyota estimated that approximately 4 million teens would reach driving age in the United States every year until 2010, when the demographic group of drivers under age 30 would number 123 million, or a third of all car buyers. Although these younger consumers could not afford the pricier cars—those with higher profit mar-gins—they remained a key to future profits since brand preference was created early on. Companies such as Levi Strauss & Co. had already been burned by ignoring the preferences of Generation Yers when it failed to pick up on the wide-leg look in jeans.

Generation Y swelled in numbers because of the size of its parents' generation, the baby boomers. The baby boomers were responsible not only for the size of Generation Y but also, until the children left home, for its financial status. While many Generation Yers could afford to buy their own cars, many also needed assistance from their parents, and so marketers had to appeal to the sensibilities of both the younger and the older generations. In an article by Joyzelle Davis in the Montreal Gazette, Mark Del Russo, the leader of Toyota's Genesis Team, which was charged with the task of figuring out the purchasing preferences of Generation Y, said, "It's important to respect and not alienate the baby-boomer generation." Honda focused its "What about Now?" campaign on corporate themes as a means of connecting with the responsible side of baby boomer conscious while also appealing to the latent sense of rebellion in the group, which had come of age in the turbulent 1960s.

Honda connected with the younger generation almost by happenstance. Analysts speculated that the low price of the Civic appealed to teens and 20-somethings, but even more important was Honda's history in Formula One racing, which attracted young men especially. "You've just gotta have a Civic—it's the car," 19-year-old Luis Aguirre of Hollywood, who owned a 1996 Civic DX coupe, was quoted as saying in Davis's article. Aguirre had modified his Civic into a "slammed-down" version by boosting power to the engine and enhancing the sound system, while other young men also lowered the car body and added custom wheels, oversized exhaust pipes, and turbochargers. Auto industry analyst Eric Noble noted that these modifications, combined with Honda's racing heritage, created a "halo of hipness" for the brand. Honda picked up on this trend by introducing the Civic SI model, which came with custom wheels and side sill panels that made the body appear to be closer to the ground. Honda also installed a 160-horsepower engine to replace the 106-horsepower engine standard in most Civics.


The Honda Civic competed against other subcompacts in both the import and the domestic categories. Among imports the Honda competed against Volkswagen for the attention of the younger audience. The average age of Honda buyers in the United States was 40, while the average age of Volkswagen buyers was 38, the youngest in the industry. Volkswagen wooed younger buyers with its economically priced performance models, the Golf, Jetta, and reintroduced New Beetle. On the domestic front Honda competed primarily against Ford and General Motors (GM). Ford introduced a new model, the Focus, to augment the Escort in competing for entry-level buyers. The Focus, unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in August 1998, featured a slammed-down design with stiff sports car suspension, a lowered body, and aerodynamic spoilers.

GM supported its Chevy Cavalier model with a fully integrated campaign. The "Essentials" campaign, created by GM's long-standing agency Campbell-Ewald, tied in with Macy's department stores and Conde Nast Publications to target an educated young female audience. A total of 400,000 booklets inserted in Conde Nast titles such as Women's Sports & Fitness, Self, and Bride's exhorted readers not to test-drive but rather to "try on" a Cavalier, appealing to the fashion consciousness of women aged 18 to 35. The Conde Nast database selected 30,000 subscribers as targets for invitations to events at Macy's highlighting the Cavalier. The coup came when Campbell-Ewald and Conde Nast convinced New York City officials to allow a Cavalier to remain parked in a no parking zone in front of Macy's for a week, garnering an estimated 15,000 impressions per hour. A security guard patrolled the car to ensure against vandalism, and according to Chevrolet brand advertising manager Bridget McCarvillean in an Adweek profile of Campbell-Ewald by Lisa Granatstein, he "turned out to be a good product ambassador."


Davis quoted 21-year-old Julia Gulia as saying, "I want something more present, very updated, because that describes me," as she was picking up her new Civic from a Honda dealership outside Chicago. Rubin Postaer recognized the fact that many prospective Civic buyers focused on the present in its many definitions. Gulia used the term to refer to the reputation of the Civic among her contemporaries as a popular car. Honda sought to support this notion of the Civic as a hip car with the irreverent tone of the "What about Now?" campaign, since irreverence was one of the defining features of youth culture in the late 1990s. Simultaneously, the "What about Now?" campaign stressed the importance of focusing on the here and now. "Carpe diem," or "seize the day," could have served as a motto for this younger generation. The tag line underscored the preoccupation with present gratification by stressing "now" as its focal point.


In 1998 a $20-million Honda campaign used a tie-in with Procter & Gamble's instantly recognizable icon of cleanliness, the bald-headed Mr. Clean, to tout its environmentally friendly cars. In June 1998, however, Honda came under fire for its misinterpretation of the Clean Air Act, resulting in fines of up to $262 million. The controversy arose from Honda's failure to program its emissions control system to report spark plug failures in 1.6 million of its cars. For its part Honda explained that it was trying to avoid excessive instances when the "check engine" light would illuminate. According to a Los Angeles Times article by Denise Gellene, Honda spokesperson Art Garner maintained that the company's automobiles still "meet or exceed every requirement" of the Clean Air Act. Larry Kopald, a Los Angeles advertising executive, pointed out that Honda's decision to continue running the Mr. Clean ads might appear hypocritical to consumers. "If people see the ads right now, Honda runs the risk of being seen as a manipulator of the media," said Kopald in Gellene's article, adding that the controversy "does make them seem a little foolish." On the other hand, Clay Timon, chairman of the San Francisco image consulting firm Landor Associates, was cited in Gellene's article as doubting that the controversy would register negatively with consumers, since the ads had "created an image of Honda as fuel-efficient, with engines that don't pollute, well in advance of the settlement coming down." If anything, according to Timon, consumers would simply see the settlement as "out of character."


According to statistics compiled by J. D. Powers & Associates, the Honda Civic continued to lead the subcompact category in sales in 1998. Rubin Postaer also reported that intentions to purchase the Civic were on an upward trend after the 1998 "What about Now?" campaign and that dealers were registering increasing demand for the Civic. What was more, Honda achieved this success through very efficient advertising, which cost only a little more than half as much as the advertising of its competitors. In 1997 Honda budgeted $43 million in media expenditures, while Ford and Chevrolet each spent $77 million on the second-place Escort and the fourth-place Cavalier, respectively. Saturn devoted an astronomical $185 million to media expenditures, more than four times as much as Honda.

Honda expressed its satisfaction and confidence in Rubin Postaer by awarding the agency the advertising account of its upscale Acura division. As it had done in 1986, when it awarded its main ad account to Rubin Postaer without a review, Honda forwent a review in transferring the Acura account from Suissa Miller of Los Angeles to Rubin Postaer. The victory was particularly satisfying for Rubin Postaer in light of its having lost the bid for the account in 1996, when it landed at Suissa Miller. In awarding the Acura account, Honda acknowledged that Rubin Postaer understood best how to position Honda's many models in various markets and to different target audiences.


Davis, Joyzelle. "Automakers Tune In to 'Phat' Vibrations: Reinventing Themselves in Bid to Win Loyalty of Generation Y." Montreal Gazette, July 17, 1999.

Gellene, Denise. "Honda Seeks to Clear the Air over Ads." Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1998, p. D6.

Johnson, Greg. "Agency Followed 'Simple' Equation for Honda Success." Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1999.

"The Trouble with Excellence." Economist, July 4, 1998.

                                          William D. Baue

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American Honda Motor Company

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American Honda Motor Company