‘Auto Trader’ TV Campaign Taking on Papers By Name

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

In an aggressive nationwide TV and radio ad campaign, Auto Trader and its online partner AutoTrader.Com are challenging the classifieds of market-leading newspapers by name in comparisons of price and presentation.

In Chicago, for example, the TV ads running during late-evening broadcast news programs take on the Chicago Tribune. The ads show a torn-out three-line, one-column classified ad from the Chicago Tribune looking small and gray in the middle of an otherwise empty screen. That image is replaced by a full-color, full-screen shot of an ad with a photo in the Auto Trader magazine, which is followed by a screenshot of an ad on AutoTrader.Com.

A narrator and type on the screen assert a three-line Tribune auto classified ad with no graphics that runs for three days would be $10 more expensive than a much longer run with an ad and photo in Auto Trader magazine and AutoTrader.Com.

“That’s sounds like the same campaign they’ve been doing here,” said Bill Coker, who directs auto advertising for the Houston Chronicle. “They were all over the place for a while, though in the last three weeks it’s gotten quieter — or I’ve gotten callous to it.”

The Houston market ads targeted the Chronicle, he said.

“We didn’t do anything” to counter the ads, Coker said. “We just let them spout and kept on keeping on.” With its volume contracts with dealers, the Chronicle gets the bulk of print advertising on cars, he said.

Most of the targeted newspapers also have products that compete directly with the Auto Trader book and online site. The Chronicle, for instance, has an online site called ChronicleCars. And earlier this month, it launched a monthly niche print product with classifieds for “extreme rides” that it calls Mixed Metal.

The Chicago Tribune publishes a free-distribution weekly used-car book called Chicago Tribune Cars. The magazine also carries RV, boat and motorcycle classifieds, which compete with similar paid products by Auto Trader parent Trader Publishing Company.

The Tribune has not reacted to the spots with their own campaign, but its director of classified advertising, Barbara Swanson, challenged the notion that the paper’s advertising is more expensive. “Through combined print and online auto ad packages for as low as $21.76, we believe we have the right mix of pricing and products for every type of seller, ” she said. “With products like Cars.com, Cars Magazine and Chicago Tribune classified ads and our other niche publications, we provide the largest marketplace to connect buyers and sellers throughout the Chicago metropolitan area.”

Trader Publishing President George Brooks said the campaign began as a test a few months ago. “We’ll continue to go along with it as long as it produces results,” he said.

Is it producing results, he was asked. “Oh, yeah,” he said.

Making comparisons with a specific newspaper is a first for Auto Trader, he added.

While the ads give much prominence to Auto Trader magazine, they are actually being run out of AutoTrader.Com. The Internet auto classified site is owned by Cox Enterprises, publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and 16 other dailies.

AutoTrader.Com — which in the past has publicized its campaigns with press releases detailing the number of buys and markets — is being tight-lipped about this effort.

“Our leadership team prefers not to give specifics about the campaign for strategic reasons,” the company’s media relations manager, Louise Barr, said in a statement. “Only eight percent of newspaper readers are in market to buy a used car, versus more than 80 percent of the 9 million unique monthly visitors to our site who all come to us for one reason. … As the automotive classifieds leader, it is incumbent on us to grow the category and make consumers aware of their choices. The number of consumers researching and finding cars online continues to grow significantly every year, while those using newspaper declines.”

Barr did say the creative for the ads was produced by Detroit-based Doner Advertising.

Ed Merrick, classified ad manager for The Oregonian in Portland, said he wasn’t aware of any Auto Trader campaign in the market now, but AutoTrader.Com ran an aggressive radio campaign last year. “It was very effective in terms of making you think the newspaper was not worth much,” he said. The campaign didn’t mention the Oregonian by name, but the paper responded with ads for auto classified on its OregonLive.com site.

The paper is running a campaign for newspaper classifieds right now that focuses on the differences in a car depicted on an online site, and the actual automobile, Merrick said.

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