Dodge's cryptic Hemi campaign.

Advertising deconstructed.
July 19 2004 4:13 PM

What Is a Hemi Engine, Anyway?

Decoding Dodge's cryptic ad campaign.

Hemi happiness The Spot: We see two scuzzy dudes in a scuzzy Plymouth Duster. They stop at a light and find themselves next to a gleaming Dodge Ram pickup—which in turn tows behind it a gorgeous, vintage Dodge Charger. The scuzzy passenger leans out of his window and asks, "Hey, that thing got a Hemi?" The Ram owner answers, "Yeah." The scuzzy driver says, "Sweeeeeeeeeeeet," and revs his engine. Cue green light. The pickup waxes the scuzzmobile. At the next light, the Ram driver turns to the Plymouth. "Did you mean the Charger?" he asks. " 'Cause, you know that's got a Hemi, too."

To answer your first question: A Hemi is a type of engine. It's got hemispherical combustion chambers. This shape enhances their thermal efficiency and airflow.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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In other words, Hemis open a can of whup-butt, bro! And then take names, and then kick your butt harder! (For a more technical explanation, try this site about the Hemi and its relative strengths and weaknesses.)

Hemi hooray! If you're like me, you'd never even heard of a "Hemi" until this set of ads came out. I asked a bunch of friends and none of them had heard of it either. I sort of guessed that it had to be an engine. Or some sort of exhaust pipe. Or a fan belt. Of course, I'm clearly not the target market here. I drive a '92 Honda Accord with 160,000 miles on it. ("Hey, that thing got an antenna?" No, someone snapped it off years ago. "Sweeeeeeeeet.")

But for those who buy their cars with an eye to horsepower and torque, the Hemi is a genuine legend. It powered the muscle cars of the '50s and dominated NASCAR in the '60s and early '70s. For motorheads, it's a big deal.

Realizing this, Dodge relaunched the Hemi—after a long absence—in its Dodge Ram Heavy Duty pickup. They expected Baby Boomers would instantly recognize the Hemi (and its drag strip cachet). But marketing director Julie Roehm told me that Dodge was shocked to learn, in consumer research, that lots of young people still worship at the altar of Hemi.

Hemi huzzah! OK, we'll take her word for it. No young people I know, though. I asked her if Dodge had worried at all that the ad would misfire with folks—like me and my friends—for whom "Hemi" draws a total blank. Granted, we may not be likely Dodge buyers, but surely there are some out there who've never heard of the Hemi—and will be puzzled by the ads—yet still fit into Dodge's target demographic. Is Dodge putting them off by not explaining what a Hemi is?

Roehm argues that buying cars is not like "buying off the shelf." She says 70 percent to 80 percent of buyers will shop online before going to a dealer. So, it's OK, and perhaps even preferable, for TV ads to spawn a bit of mystery. TV is about awareness, not detailed explanations.

Once you've heard of the Hemi, you can follow up on a Web site or chat about it with your more car-savvy pals. Roehm says the vehicle-buying process is sequential: "Awareness. Consideration. Shopping. Preference. Purchase." At the awareness stage, TV is by far the best tool. For those middle-stage buyers, the marketing centers on print, word-of-mouth, and the Web.

But who is this ad really targeting, if not me? One clue is to be found in the ad's closing moments. A voice says, "Hit it!" and we hear an aggressive snarl of a bass line and see the Dodge slogan above a bright red pair of ram's horns: "Grab Life by the Horns." This is, without doubt, an in-your-face brand. Roehm says the Dodge brand is "raw, full of power, and bold," and its color is always red.

But the Dodge driver in the ad (his name is Ed) doesn't look raw or bold. Ed looks like he enjoys fixing up his deck. So, my theory is this: Ed and the two scuzzy dudes (Roehm calls them "the rednecks") correspond to two sides of the Dodge buyer's brain. Part of the buyer is Ed—that responsible dad who chuckles at the silly rednecks. But part of him still relates to those rednecks … lusting after a 345-horsepower, 5.7-liter butt-kicking machine! The ad at once appeals to the parental yin and the redneck yang. And it seems to be working. The Hemi has been added to several other DaimlerChrysler car lines and will show up this fall in the new Jeep Grand Cherokee.

As for the rednecks, they've taken on a cultural life of their own. I think their success is all about the way redneck No. 2 says the word "sweet." All drawn out and drawly: "Sweeeaaaaaaaayyyte." The Hemi catchphrase is on T-shirts now, and the rednecks show up at car events.

Grade: B. No great shakes, but the ad does seem effective at building awareness. One example: Near the start of the war in Iraq, there was a political cartoon in which an Iraqi family greets an oncoming American tank. "That thing gotta Hemi?" asks the Iraqi dad. Philosophical aside: Does the soldier in the tank represent the Ed side of America or more the side of America that says, "Sweeeaaaaaaaayyyte"?

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