Toyota dealers in five southeast states have pulled their commercials off ABC TV local affiliates, complaining about the coverage of Toyota safety problems by ABC News and its chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross.
The ad agency representing the 173 dealers told ABC affiliates last week that the shift was due to "excessive stories on the Toyota issues." The dealers shifted their commercial time buys to non-ABC stations in the same markets, "as punishment for the reporting," according to an ABC station manager.
ABC News and Ross began reporting on the problem of "runaway Toyotas" last November in a series of stories that preceded the large recalls ordered by the company, and apologies for quality shortcomings as well as misstatements about the extent of the defects. Toyota is now expected to add the 2010 Prius to its list of recalled vehicles.
The shift of commercials away from ABC affiliates was ordered last week, according to Marcia Owens-Reder, senior vice-president at 22Squared, the Atlanta advertising agency that handles the account for the dealers, known as Southeast Toyota.
Reder said she "tried" to talk the dealers out of the move. "We have counseled the client on the pros and cons of this, and ultimately it was their decision to make," read an e-mail sent to the stations from the agency last week.
"Please let me know the earliest that we can get off the air on your station," the message concluded.
Reder referred further question to the president of Southeast Toyota, Ed Sheehy, of Deerfield Beach, Florida. He did not immediately return calls from ABC News.
Southeast Toyota represents dealers in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina. According to its website, Southeast Toyota dealers sell 20 percent of all Toyotas sold in the United States.
The move against ABC affiliates in the Southeast came as Toyota launched a new media campaign aimed to "regain the trust" of its customers after growing questions about the safety and quality of its cars.
A 30 second spot that aired during the Super Bowl on CBS TV, at a reported cost of $3 million, dealt entirely the massive recall of almost 9 million cars because of safety issues surrounding sudden acceleration. A female announcer said, "Your Toyota dealers is focused on the safety of their customers."
The new Toyota spot also aired on the network news talk shows on Sunday morning, including on the ABC News program "This Week."
Toyota rivals Ford and Hyundai also advertised heavily during the Super Bowl. The Hyundai commercials repeatedly cited issues of quality and safety.