Honda Element
A Honda Element chats with a platypus in an online game devised to market the vehicle.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
updated 3/9/2006 5:55:35 PM ET 2006-03-09T22:55:35

With a billion-dollar automotive advertising industry churning out a blitz of seemingly endless car commercials, Honda is hoping a rabbit, a crab and a duck-billed platypus can help it win over the hearts and minds of American car consumers.

Drivers on highways in 16 major American car markets are looking up to see billboards inviting them to tune in to a radio frequency. Once there, they might hear a conversation between a platypus and a car at a cocktail party. It sounds like a Monty Python sketch, but it’s actually a new advertising campaign for the Honda Element that began last fall.

“The Honda Element is unique, and so we were looking for an ad that would be unique and appeal to younger customers,” said Honda spokesman Chris Naughton, adding that the ads were originally developed for the Internet only. They were so popular that Honda decided to use them to advertise on more traditional means, including Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network’s late night block of adult programming.

Honda has also developed a Web site to accompany its Element campaign. Launched last November, the site lets users drive an Element around a virtual island and strike up sometimes surreal conversations with six creatures, including an opossum and a donkey, that extol the best features of the Honda Element utility vehicle, such as its four-wheel drive. The idea is to give users a novel way to learn about the Element’s various features.

“You’re a bit of an odd one … you have the bill of a duck, the tail of a beaver and the body of an otter,” the Element says to the egg-laying mammal, which responds: “I am a bit of a hodgepodge, but look at you — part SUV, part van and part surf wagon.”

Volkswagen’s new television campaign may be taking strange a step further. In the advertisements a small, toy-like representation of a driver’s “fast” — a reference to the “thing” inside a driver that makes him or her drive fast — encourages drivers to put their foot down. The campaign is linked to the debut of the 2006 GTi, a sporty hatchback based on the VW Golf, and comes after a year in which the VW brand saw a significant decline in U.S. sales.

VW and Honda’s new marketing campaigns are some of the many ways in which auto manufacturers are looking to make their products stand out in a sea of seemingly similar television commercials for cars notes Jim Hossack, an expert in automotive products and marketing at AutoPacific, an automotive research company in Tustin, Calif.

“Television advertising is very expensive, and with hundreds more television channels there is concern about a message actually getting across,” Hossack said. “Most car companies have agreed to put less money into television and are looking at alternatives, whether that’s vehicle placement in movies, or events where people get to drive vehicles, motor sports. There are hundreds of different opportunities and everyone is trying to find a more productive mix than the one they currently have,” he added.

There are other obstacles, he notes: Technologies like TiVo and DVR mean television viewers can skip through commercials, while car manufacturers are finding it difficult to convey a lot of product information in a short, affordable exposure. And at a time when some automakers are struggling and trying to stretch their advertising budgets, the most advertising opportunities on television, such as the SuperBowl, are phenomenally costly.

Honda’s aim is to appeal to younger consumers, according to Naughton. Many of them already buy the Element, which has seen sales fluctuate. The average age of an Element buyer is 43, which is young in an industry where an average buyer’s age tends to be in the upper 40s, 50s and above. “We chose a game on the Internet because it’s fun and could be spread by word of mouth and could reach a target audience of college kids,” Naughton said.

Naughton notes that Honda plans to use similar “viral” online marketing campaigns — which use word-of-mouth, or aim to raise brand awareness using pre-existing social networks like the Internet — to launch more car models. A case in point in the Honda Fit, due in April, which is one of a cluster of subcompact cars due from automakers that aim to benefit from American consumers’ newfound love of more fuel efficient automobiles.

Indeed, Honda is the first automaker to run advertisements for the Fit, due to go on sale in April, on the new, a social networking Web site for auto enthusiasts launched in late February by, a leading Web sites for car information. aims to bring auto enthusiasts together in much the same way as online virtual community, offering users the opportunity to create a Web page with information about themselves, their cars and interact with other car fans.

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