AOL Debuts Jeep Ads, As More Deals Come Under Scrutiny

AOL Time Warner will promote Chrysler Group’s Jeep brand through an extensive marketing arrangement, as federal regulators continue to investigate the media giant’s accounting of several advertising transactions.

For Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler, a unit of DaimlerChrysler , AOL will run an integrated campaign supporting “The Great Jeep Getaway,” featuring a set of packaged tours and rental deals promoting Chrysler’s new Jeep Wrangler, Liberty and Grand Cherokee vehicles.

The focal point of the effort will be an Internet site accessible from both the Web and AOL’s proprietary America Online and CompuServe services. It also will be promoted on AOL’s Netscape portal, through an AOL Keyword, and in magazines from the New York company’s Time Inc. division.

The site will feature travel-related magazine content and tools to rent a Jeep vehicle at a discount, or to book vacations to places like Vail, Colo., Maui, Hawaii, Orlando, Fla. and New York City. The vacations, which feature Jeep vehicles, come about by way of special arrangements between AOL, Sabre’s Web travel site Travelocity, and car rental companies, and they include a $500 discount toward the purchase or lease of an eligible new Jeep.

“By leveraging the power of the AOL Time Warner brands, ‘The Great Jeep Getaway’ provides us the opportunity to engage consumers in a compelling, informative and interactive way,” said Chrysler Brand Marketing Director Jay Kuhnie.

The campaign will run through the fall.

The program is the latest joint effort between AOL and Chrysler, which began a multi-million dollar marketing pact last year, building on DaimlerChrysler’s past work with America Online and Time Warner prior to the media conglomerate’s merger last year.

In addition to “The Great Jeep Getaway,” the collaboration has produced a site that combined vehicle marketing and holiday travel safety information. Chrysler vehicles were given away as prizes on the site in a contest that challenged users to guess the celebrities who voiced America Online’s “You’ve Got Mail” welcome message.

AOL also has worked with Chrysler to provide the America Online service to company employees.

“We’re delighted to expand our relationship with the Chrysler Group by working with them to increase consumers’ understanding of their great brands and help drive sales while providing information about great driving destinations for summer and fall vacation planning,” said Molly Ford, senior vice president of media sales and marketing at Time Inc., of the new arrangement. “This promotion is a good example of two AOL Time Warner divisions — America Online and Time Inc. — working together for a client’s benefit.”

The news also comes as reports indicate that investigators at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department are scrutinizing America Online marketing agreements inked during the past year and a half. Earlier this month, the company disclosed in SEC filings that it was examining three deals in particular that could have been improperly booked. The deals totaled about $49 million in revenue over eight months.

While the company has remained mum on which agreements are under scrutiny, the Wall Street Journal reported that an advertising-for-bandwidth arrangement with WorldCom is likely to be a chief contender. The New York Times also reported that a second deal might have been with Qwest Communications .

Additionally, the Journal on Monday said that AOL was double-checking its accounting of an investment and advertising deal with Oxygen Media, the New York-based, women-focused online and cable television network. Under that arrangement, AOL invested $30 million to $50 million in the network, while Oxygen agreed to buy about $100 million in online ads.

It’s uncertain whether such deals are examples of “round-tripping,” an illicit accounting procedure that essentially has two companies buying and selling to each other services or products of equal value. As a result, both partners are able to report the transactions as sales revenue — potentially inflating their numbers, since there’s no real value gain for either.

In any event, AOL has made barter arrangements a common practice since its merger, often signing deals with technology vendors that included advertising on America Online as part of its payment to them. Partners in such arrangements include Qwest and Hewlett-Packard .

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