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For Your Eyes Only

Why would an automaker spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising to reach people who already bought the car? Go ask Mini USA. In the next few weeks, the company will launch a series of ads in magazines ranging from Maxim to The New Yorker aimed just at their current 150,000 U.S. owners. Potential customers won't even be able to read what's on the page.

That's because the ads will be encrypted, decipherable only by the cognoscenti. Mini is sending owners a "covert" kit -- mocked up as a wizened-looking book -- that will include special glasses, a decoder, and a "magic window decryptor." Using those, owners will be able to find Web addresses in the ads that lead them to free prizes and invitations to events. Nonowners will just have to feel slightly jealous that they're out of the loop.

The strategy is to get owners buzzing about the brand while piquing the curiosity of potential buyers. "It's a covert and an overt campaign almost simultaneously," says John Butler, a creative director at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Mini's new ad agency. "If you get the kit, you're rewarded. If not, you get the gist that owning a Mini is like being in a club."

The prizes perpetuate that clubbiness. The first will be an invitation to join Mini's upcoming "Mini Takes the States" event, a cross-country rally where hundreds of Mini Coopers will drive from Monterey, Calif., to Lakeville, Conn. Another, following the spy motif, will be joke switch covers for the Mini's dashboard, like one that labels the fog-light switch "ejector seat."

Luxury carmakers have dangled perks in front of their drivers for some time, of course. Infiniti (NSANY) owners receive invitations to panel discussions from noted designers and architects. New buyers of BMW's high-powered models can attend the BMW Performance Center for daylong advanced driving classes. Jeep (DCX) does something similar with "Camp Jeep." Mini's approach is more wacky than posh -- in keeping with the owners of the eccentric, $18,000 Mini Cooper.

By Burt Helm

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