What's wrong with the new Lexus H ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 19 2008 11:19 AM

H Is for Help!

What's wrong with the new Lexus H ads.

The Spot: Children in a classroom recite the alphabet. When they reach H, they fizzle into an awkward silence. Subsequent scenes show us a typewriter with a blank where the H key should be, the Yahoo logo spelled Ya oo, and the famous "Hollywood" sign missing its first letter. The ad concludes by showing us the H as it reappears on the back of a Lexus automobile. An announcer says: "The power of h. The Lexus hybrids." (Click hereto watch the ad.)

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.

This ad has a grandiose, curtain-raising quality to it. There's that portentous music, the use of the iconic Hollywood sign, and a dramatic voice-over that creates the expectation of a payoff. The whole thing looks and feels like a major product launch.

Except the car models featured here are far from new. And Lexus has offered hybrids since 2004. So, why take the podium, clear their throats, and introduce these vehicles now?

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It turns out the message didn't resonate the first time around. Lexus aired ads to mark the debut of its hybrids but never did much to follow up. According to David Nordstrom, vice president of marketing at Lexus, recent consumer research showed that while lots of folks were familiar with the Toyota Prius (a corporate sibling), there was very little awareness that Lexus makes hybrids. In general, says Nordstrom, there's "a lot of noise in the category": Carmakers' airy promises and prototypes for future eco-friendly models have gotten all mixed up with consumers' ideas about what kinds of cars are actually available to them right now.

This Lexus campaign is a multistep process to remedy that problem. It began about a month ago with a set of text-only ads that featured enigmatic phrases involving H-words. These newer ads are Step 2, in which we see the actual hybrid Lexus models and the H that's part of their "badging" (the industry term for the words and logos stuck all over your car). Lexus won't tell me what happens in Step 3, except to say that the h will "pop up in surprising ways" and get "dimensionalized." I'm picturing a goofy, animated H that talks in an upbeat way about the environment. (Major demerits if the H at any time wears a baseball cap or interacts with a cute animal.)

The obvious plan here is to own the H in hybrid, through these H-centric spots and also the distinctive, blue-tinged design of the H on the badging. I basically like the strategy. These ads remind us that Lexus makes hybrids while creating, with the H, a visual hook to ram home that notion. And the H logo itself is subtle enough to be in tune with the luxe-but-low-key Lexus image. It serves its purpose without becoming an ostentatious display of eco cred.

My issues are these:

1) The agency behind these ads is the same one Lexus had when it launched these cars in 2004. Shouldn't there be some internal corporate concern that, after all this time, the public still had no clue about Lexus hybrids? According to Lexus' agency, one consumer quote coming out of the research was, "If Lexus had a hybrid, I'd jump all over it." Seeing as how Lexus did have a hybrid—three, in fact—that sure makes it seem as if they missed a lot of sales opportunities these past few years. How will things be different this time around?

2) This strategy only works if it's a long-haul commitment. Abandoning the H theme after a year or two, or failing to put enough ads behind it, will leave Lexus right back where it started. Car model names that are just strings of letters and numbers always seem cold and characterless to me (anyone fondly remember the XR4Ti?), and a name like Lexus' GS 450h is just gibberish to the average consumer without a continued focus on the meaning behind that H.

3) The ad feels incongruously epic for a spot that's just reminding us about an existing product. I guess it's odd to complain that an ad is too eye-catching, but there's a certain boy-who-cried-wolf risk in employing an ad more dramatic than the situation warrants. What happens when Lexus really does have a major new product to launch?

Grade: B-. I also wonder whether it's wise to focus on the letter H, when the Lexus brand mark is an L. And what about the rivals who already use an H in their logos?  Is there some danger viewers will misremember this as a campaign for onda? Or yundai?