Patriotic Ads Urge Consumers To Buy Cars

N E W   Y O R K, Oct. 17, 2001 -- Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, patriotic signs and slogans are popping up everywhere, including on recent TV ads that urge consumers to help America by buying a new set of wheels, with zero percent financing.

The Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler — have rolled out new ad campaigns that essentially wave the American flag as part of their pitch. With slogans like GM's "Keep America Rolling," and "Ford Drives America," the ads are light on interest rates and heavy on patriotism. Chevy's ad line: "It's one way we can help keep America rolling forward."

One Denver-area car dealer even had a "buy one get one free" offer: "The president has asked us to keep things rolling and not react to our crisis," the dealer says in the advertisement. The deals are worthwhile, one industry expert said.

"I think it's probably the best time to buy a car there's ever been," said car-buying expert Remar Sutton, quickly adding that consumers should scrutinize the fine print on any agreement.

Meanwhile, some critics of these ads think they are in poor taste and are capitalizing on the Sept. 11 tragedy. What do you think of the ads?

Bob Garfield of Advertising Age magazine told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America that he doesn't have a problem with car deals — but he's bothered by the patriotic messages behind them.

"They are suggesting they are doing this as their patriotic duty, but they are doing it to sell automobiles. To tie it into this tragedy, to this horror, to me is simply disgusting," Garfield said.

Read the Fine Print

Some of the deals offered might not be what they seem. When Good Morning America's consumer correspondent Greg Hunter took a closer look at the Denver buy one get one free offer, for instance, he found out that the free car is actually a used car.

As for the zero-percent financing offered by the nation's top auto manufacturers, you might not be able to get a no-interest loan if you have poor credit. Chrysler's zero-percent financing offer is limited to those who sign on for three-year loans on 2002 models.

For many GM and Ford buyers, however, the zero percent offer is a legitimate deal. J.D. Power and Associates said that more than 36 percent of those buying a GM car and financing it through the dealer received zero percent financing.

People buying a Ford did even better, with more than half getting zero percent financing. Before these promotions, fewer than 4 percent of GM and Ford buyers were getting zero percent financing.

"Prices have plummeted to the lowest they've been really, [in terms of] percentages of profit in the last 35 years," Sutton said. "So there can't be a better time. The other side is that the dealers are going to be trying harder than ever to make more money on you because they want to make every dollar they can."

Though car sales were in a slump after the Sept. 11 attacks, the new deals could turn things around. Sales totaled $17.4 million last year and $16.9 million in 1999, and some anticipate this year could be even better, thanks to the deals.

Those who do buy cars amid this campaign should do so with caution, Hunter found. If you are trading in an old vehicle, be sure to get a good price. Shop around, and check out at least three dealerships and compare prices rather than buying a car on your first trip to the showroom. Also, avoid purchasing insurance that is overpriced or unnecessary, such as life insurance, from the car dealership.

From Condolences to Tacky Tactics

But there is criticism of some of those deals in advertising circles. Garfield is dismayed at how auto manufacturers and other companies have handled advertising after the Sept. 11 attacks.

At first, advertisers responded in tempered, responsible, even touching ways, Garfield said. Newspapers were stripped of their weekly contracted display ads for items like furniture and jewelry, and instead ran company ads that featured expressions of condolence. Among those offering tasteful condolences: Miller Brewing Co., Aer Lingus, the Kingdom of Qatar and Dinty Moore.

American Express also put out a commercial aimed at helping to summon business back to the mom and pop businesses located close to the World Trade Center site.

The AmEx commercial, from New York agency Ogilvy & Mather, is a folksy retail tour of lower Manhattan, where merchants have reopened for business. "Their electricity has come back," the voiceover says. "Their phone service has come back. Now it's your turn."

However, companies that tried to boost the country's morale while promoting their products headed into bad taste territory, Garfield said.

"It's an emotional time for everyone and advertisers — like everyone else — want to do something and reach out this way," Garfield said. "That's fine, but when you start exploiting the situation to promote your brand, it becomes exploitation."

In an article for Advertising Age, Garfield criticized Anheuser-Busch, which used a national TV commercial to announce its $3 million contribution to relief agencies. The ad ostensibly encouraged all Americans to follow its example, but the self-congratulation was hard to miss, Garfield wrote.

Other companies that Garfield says offered bad-taste ads include New York Sports Club, which offered special gym enrollment deals under the banner "Keep America Strong," and Executive Industries in Las Vegas, which advertised Christmas ornaments with ads that said "Celebrate the Holiday Season & Show Support for Our Great Country!"