Oct. 4 (Bloomberg) -- What’s the deal with auto commercials showing cars driving through the desert? Who does that? Not Acura, if Jerry Seinfeld has anything to say about it.
“For the most part, car advertising is a total turnoff to the consumer; I think it needs a complete reboot,” Seinfeld said in a phone interview. “It’s too commercial-y and fear-based. Stop showing us the cars driving through the desert.”
Hold on: Seinfeld is in “Mad Men” mode. He has more thoughts about advertising.
The comedian, whose show about nothing featured a Soup Nazi and “yada, yada, yada,” is in a budding alliance with Honda Motor Co. to inject some fun into Acura and give it a sportier luster. Acura is sole sponsor of Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” Web series, the result of a bond formed with Honda’s U.S. marketing chief, Senior Vice President Mike Accavitti.
Seinfeld tie-ins are part of a strategy by Accavitti to enhance emotional ties to the Acura brand that has had a meandering image since its 1986 debut. New models and more memorable ads are key to Tokyo-based Honda’s goal to rejuvenate its premium line, eclipsed by German competitors and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus.
The online-only series joins other Internet-based efforts to promote cars. The automotive industry also is responding to consumers’ increasing inclination to research potential purchases online, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media in New York.
Mobile phones and tablets in April accounted for about 13 percent of all video-viewing, up from less than 3 percent in August 2011, according to a study by Ooyala Inc., an analytics firm that measures Web viewing habits for advertisers and other customers. Because of larger screens and faster wireless networks, advertisers can target people at specific times, on specific devices, the company found, and those people tend to watch live video almost twice as long as video on demand in the home.
Car companies “want to be in the mindset of the consumer when they go online to look up a car,” Adgate said. “They want to try things out and see what works and doesn’t work, and because of the size of their marketing budget, they more than other industries are open to experimenting.”
Acura’s U.S. sales shrank 25 percent from the brand’s 2005 peak of 209,610 to 156,216 last year. While sales are up 4.4 percent in 2013’s first nine months, competitors had even bigger gains. Lexus rose 12 percent, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW is up 14 percent and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz had a 12 percent gain. Audi is also catching up to Acura in the U.S., trailing by about 6,000 units this year as the Volkswagen AG unit’s sales rose 14 percent.
Honda is retooling the line, releasing the new RLX premium sedan this year to replace the slow-selling RL and revamping the stalwart MDX sport-utility vehicle, the brand’s consistent star since its release in 2000. A replacement for the TL sport sedan is in the works, and Acura is bringing back the NSX supercar in 2015 to give the line a halo.
In Seinfeld’s initial Acura commercial, he and fellow car collector Jay Leno, the “Tonight Show” host, competed to get the first NSX. The spot ran during the 2012 Super Bowl, three years ahead of the car’s release, to “get people talking about Acura again,” Accavitti said in an interview last month.
“It was such a cool car and they thought it would be fun to do it on the Super Bowl,” Seinfeld said. “They needed somebody who people associate with cars.”
He was given a free hand to work with the director to script the commercial.
“There is nothing better for a guy like me, obviously, than when you connect with a client that understands humor is the ultimate weapon in advertising when used properly,” he said.
“Don’t sell me your product, sell me you,” said Seinfeld, 59. “You’re trying to make people like you. You don’t have to sell them your product. You have to make them like you.”
Accavitti, a 55-year-old Michigan native who spent much of his career at Chrysler, arrived at Honda in 2011 as the Tokyo-based carmaker was reeling from a string of unfavorable product reviews and stalled production because of natural disasters in Japan and Thailand. The Seinfeld Super Bowl commercial, and one with actor Matthew Broderick behaving like his character in 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to promote the CR-V crossover, were two of his first projects.
“We continue to see this unmet need for new Seinfeld material,” Accavitti said. “That was the genesis of the Super Bowl ad we did with him a couple of years back.”
Accavitti and Seinfeld began talking about working together again with “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” because the show needed a sponsor and Acura was seeking alternative channels to promote itself.
“The first season, Jerry didn’t have any sponsors. We reached out and said, ‘What we’re after as a company is we want to own things,’” Accavitti said. “We don’t want to be one of 40 sponsors.”
A typical episode of the program, available on a website set up by Seinfeld and the Crackle video streaming service, features him calling fellow comedians to meet for coffee. Seinfeld picks up guests in vintage cars he has selected to fit the personality of entertainers, including David Letterman, Chris Rock, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
An Acura ad appears at the start of an episode and vintage Honda and Acura commercials from the 1960s and 1980s have run at the end of episodes that typically average 15 minutes.
Since Honda’s involvement began, “viewership is up 40 percent from year one to year two,” Accavitti said. “We’re seeing a steady growth. It’s gone viral. Over 3.5 million people have viewed it.”
The arrangement runs through next year. Both Seinfeld and Accavitti declined to discuss how much Acura is spending for it.
Compared with cost of airing ads on traditional television or cable channels, “it’s a very, very fair price,” Accavitti said. “It’s very efficient.”
“He’s always generating ideas for us, to help him add greater value to our partnership,” Accavitti said. “I can’t go into greater detail, but you’re going to see some stuff this next season.”
Neither he nor Seinfeld would say whether he’ll appear in future Acura commercials separate from the web series.
Seinfeld, who says he regularly calls and messages Accavitti to share ideas for “Comedians,” said the sponsorship is an ideal fit.
Acura said, “We’re not going to interfere with the show,” Seinfeld said. “Other people did not say that.”
In the first Acura-backed episode, Seinfeld and comic Sarah Silverman walk through the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles on their way to a coffee shop, when they see a 2013 RLX sedan parked on the street. Seinfeld points out the car and mentions Acura’s support for the show. Silverman simply says it looks like a nice car, and joins Seinfeld in mocking the overt product placement.
Acuras haven’t reappeared as part of the show.
“From a traditional viewpoint, a lot of car companies or marketers would have dismissed this opportunity because he has other cars in it,” Accavitti said. “I appreciate the old Porsche that he wants to show or the big Rolls-Royce that he wants to go pick up someone up in, the old Beetle he uses to get Larry David.”
David, co-creator of the “Seinfeld” situation comedy, was featured in the initial episode of the web series. In a diner reminiscent of the one on television show, Seinfeld explains that his concept for the web series is nothing more than comedians going for a ride and talking over coffee.
“You have finally done the show about nothing,” David said.