Bailout Drives Search Efforts for Automakers, Advocacy Groups

Congress has yet to approve an auto industry bailout, and the topic has people searching the Web for information about it. Advertisers such as Ford and fair lending advocacy groups see value in reaching them through search ads when the issue is top-of-mind. The practice could portend a gradual shift in the way corporations and organizations use search advertising to promote public policy messages and counteract negative impressions.

“Our big problem is perception,” said Ford Digital Marketing Manager Scott Kelly. About a year ago the automaker aimed to change that through a series of Web videos promoting the firm’s green technology efforts. The idea was to educate consumers about the firm’s hybrid and hydrogen fuel-celled cars, and to counter the belief that Ford and other American car makers produce poor quality vehicles.

About a week ago Ford repositioned that campaign to focus on the impending Federal loan to GM, Chrysler, and Ford, intended to shore up a U.S. auto industry on the verge of collapsing. When Web users search on terms like “bailout” or “auto bailout” they’re served an ad linking to “The Ford Story,” a Web site featuring videos and the firm’s business plan provided to the Senate Banking Committee earlier this month.

“A lot of the same misinformation” has surfaced in discussions about the industry and whether it deserved a multi-billion dollar security net,” said Kelly. “It just sort of underscored the issue again.” Ford wanted to make sure it got “the right story out there.”

“See Ford’s Progress on their Plan to Make the World’s Best Vehicles,” the ad declares. WPP’s Team Detroit built the site and placed media for the Ford Story campaign. The company probably will continue the effort, which has also included display advertising, till the end of the year, according to Kelly.

GM’s “Facts and Fiction” campaign is also driven through bailout-related search ads asking users to “Support the U.S. Auto Industry.” The company’s site refutes common perceptions like, “GM doesn’t make cars that people want to buy.”

For Ford and other firms targeting ads to issue-related searches, the value is not unlike that of other search advertising. “I’m only spending money when people are talking about the bailout,” said Kelly. Money certainly is a factor for a company with its hand out.

Indeed, Ford is using “existing money” from its marketing budget towards the bailout campaign. “We didn’t want to commit a bunch of additional cost at a time when we’re really trying to reduce our costs,” he said. It doesn’t hurt — in light of objections to pricey corporate jet travel to Washington, D.C by the CEOs of the big three automakers — that advertising online is much less expensive than television advertising.

“There was a hesitancy in corporate America to use some of these more transparent Web 2.0 technologies, but nothing furthers innovation more than difficult times, and we’re seeing a situation where they have an immediate need,” said Peter Greenberger, Google’s manager of elections and advocacy.

As the online ad industry grapples with a decrease in spending by auto advertisers, an important ad revenue stream, the use of search for public relations, public policy and branding purposes is a new concept for such firms, which typically rely on Web ads for direct response and lead generation.

“Historically we were focused on the end of the buying process,” said Kelly. “In the past year we’ve been more focused on changing consideration up front in the buying process, and search and online tools can help us do that.”

In January, Ford plans to launch a search campaign to support the Fusion, promoting the hybrid vehicle’s fuel efficiency. ”

“In the past companies like Ford and GM…were very savvy in using the Internet to sell products,” said Greenberger. “We’re now seeing them use the same tactics…to affect policy and educate consumers.”

Recent unprecedented government intervention in the financial industry and anticipated assistance for automakers has all sorts of groups vying for help. Some are using bailout-related searches to communicate their messages.

“Ask Congress to Stop Foreclosures, Fix Root Cause of Today’s Crisis,” suggests a Google ad from The Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping abusive financial practices. The Americans for Fairness in Lending, a group with a similar mission, has search ads relating to the $700 billion TARP program linking to “Information about pending and past consumer legislation.”

AFFIL, a two-year-old organization founded by larger consumer advocacy groups, has been using a Google Grant to pay entirely for a search ad campaign “to raise awareness about the prevalence of predatory lending,” said Sarah Byrnes, AFFIL’s campaign manager. The group also has targeted search ads based on keywords related to mortgage, credit, and debt collection. “People find our site that might not find us otherwise,” she said.

Bailout searches also turn up ads for the AARP that link to a news article on the organization’s site about concessions to domestic automakers by the United Auto Workers.

Greenberger expects to see more usage of issue-based search campaigns, in part as a result of the recent presidential search campaigns. “The Obama and McCain campaigns have educated the marketplace,” he said. “I think you’ll see a wider adoption… People like to use what works.”

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