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Japanese automaker touts U.S. impact

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. has a new promotional campaign that says it’s good for America, too.
Toyota billboard
A panel truck moves past a Toyoto billboard located on I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 11.Al Behrman / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For years the saying went, what’s good for General Motors is good for America.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. has a new promotional campaign that says it’s good for America, too.

Billboards along highways in areas of the country such as the Cincinnati-northern Kentucky region, where Toyota employs some 8,800 people, tout the U.S. economic impacts of the company, which is on its way to passing GM as the world’s largest automaker.

The messages highlight numbers, such as 13 — “Donuts in a baker’s dozen; Toyota’s U.S. investment, in billions,” and 386,000 — “Kilometers to the moon; U.S. jobs created by Toyota.” The billboards are in some two dozen U.S. markets where Toyota has factories or supplier operations, from Fremont, Calif., where Toyota partners with GM at an automaking plant, to Huntsville, Ala., where Toyota makes engines.

“Our intent is to raise awareness of our growing U.S. presence,” said Patricia Pineda, group vice president for corporate communications of Toyota Motor North America. “Our research tells us that consumers want to learn more about Toyota’s U.S. presence.”

She said Toyota highlights its U.S. investments and “level of commitment” to the country in a campaign that began last month and also includes local radio spots and airport advertising.

Toyota has led the way for Asian automakers that have steadily increased U.S. sales, and Toyota now has about 13 percent of U.S. vehicle sales. While GM and Ford Motor Co. are facing major restructuring with plant closings and job cuts, Toyota says it wants to expand car production in the United States, such as recently announced plans to make up to 100,000 Camrys a year at a Subaru plant in Lafayette, Ind.

Toyota’s message is generally warmly received in Kentucky, where it’s provided a major economic boost to the state and employs 7,000 workers at its Georgetown plant alone.

“I think most people, particularly in this area, like Toyota a lot,” said Kenneth Troske, who heads the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “They bring a lot of things to the community.”

But the billboards can be irritating to U.S. workers with an uncertain future.

“We’re not real happy about it,” said Tony Currington, vice president of United Auto Workers Local 696, with members facing possible closure of a Dayton brake plant by Delphi Corp., largest auto parts supplier for GM, its former parent.

“As a result of us losing market share to the foreign imports, we’re losing American jobs. It just hurts our economy here,” Currington said, adding that the UAW has been weakened by Toyota’s mostly nonunion operations.

“It’s not the Japanese who are causing the market share decline,” said Bruce Belzowski, an auto analyst at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. “It’s Americans buying the Japanese vehicles.”

He said Toyota’s latest campaign underlines that “they build where they sell.”

GM answers back with new ads
General Motors Corp. spokeswoman Ryndee Carney said the company usually doesn’t comment on competitors’ advertising. But she noted that the company has launched its own new advertising this month, with print ads describing GM’s restructuring, price cuts and new products.

The ads’ tag line: “At the global car company that’s proud to be American.”

In an April 12 speech to the Swiss American Chamber of Commerce in New York, Robert Lutz, GM’s vice chairman, cited statistics about GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG’s importance to the U.S. auto industry and economy, saying they account for 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and 11 percent of manufacturing shipments.

“People who think it doesn’t matter who owns our auto industry are flat wrong,” Lutz said.

But the days of Japan-bashing and “Buy American” appeals have mostly faded, said Gordon Wangers, CEO of Los Angeles-based Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., which has done work for Toyota, GM and other companies.

“I think today’s consumers, especially in our global economy, are not particularly moved by it the way they once were. I think they’re moved by a good product at a good price,” he said.

He suggested that most young Americans, asked their favorite car companies, now would mention Toyota. He said Toyota has had a long-term strategy of being accepted like an American company, hitting another milestone in American assimilation this year with the announcement that a NASCAR edition of Camry will begin racing next year in the Nextel Cup, America’s top stock-car series.

“Those billboards are the culmination of 35 years of focus on being American in America,” Wangers said. “They’ve waited until now to thump their chest.”