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Sales slumping, but Europe auto ads not

– When Juventus took on Lazio in a marquee soccer match last month, Italian television viewers also witnessed another high-stakes clash: a battle to win over increasingly scarce car buyers.

Volkswagen, Renault and Fiat are among the seven auto brands that bought ads during the 15-minute halftime break. Cars dominated advertising before and after the match, too, as the manufacturers push for market share even in Italy, where demand is heading for a 33-year low.

Open a European newspaper or magazine, scan billboards across the region, or visit a website aimed at readers there, and the story is the same.

Contrary to an overall decline in European ad spending, the auto industry through September forked out 3.9 percent more money in Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain – the region’s biggest markets, according to data from consumer research company Nielsen.

“Carmakers are pushing ads as much as possible to conquer any potential buyer in a market that’s getting smaller and smaller,” said Andrea Boaretto, a marketing professor at Milan Polytechnic’s business school. “The risk is that consumers get overloaded by car commercials.”

This year’s marketing budgets aren’t a one-off increase. The auto industry has boosted ad spending since the global recession in 2009, even though demand in the region is headed for a fifth straight annual decline, to its lowest level since 1995. Last year, carmakers spent $10.5 billion on traditional media ads, 14 percent more than they did two years earlier, according to Nielsen.

The hunt for an edge has even spilled over to contests for the allegiance of celebrities. To promote its i electric-car brand at an event last month in New York, BMW recruited “Pulp Fiction” star Uma Thurman, who last year appeared in commercials for Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta hatchback.

“Brands compete even more fiercely for their share of static or declining markets,” said Ian Rotherham, global account director at MediaCom, an agency that handles ad placement for VW. “Next year will be tough.”

PSA Peugeot Citroen, which secured government guarantees to shore up its ailing auto business and is planning to cut some 8,000 jobs, has continued to spend to maintain its image with consumers.

In addition to plugging new models and raising awareness, incentives played a key role in ads featured during the Nov. 17 Juventus-Lazio match as pricing becomes a focus in crisis-hit Europe. In Italy, Fiat is offering rebates of as much as $6,500 on natural gas-powered versions of the 500 and Panda models.

In Germany, General Motors’s Opel brand is promoting a 30-day money-back guarantee.