So Who Will Really Get The First New NSX, Seinfeld or Leno?

Honda and Acura’s ad campaign for this year’s Super Bowl has gotten a bit of attention already days before the “big game”, in part because they got out their checkbook and hired some high profile talent like actor Matthew Broderick, director Todd Phillips and comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno. The Honda CR-V ad that Phillips shot starring Broderick playing himself reprising Ferris Bueller as a middle aged movie star avoiding work has gotten most of the attention – mostly, it seems, from people who came of age in the 1980s to whom the John Hughes film was a touchstone. It’s been mildly humorous to see the film’s fans’ disappointment, all while telling other fans, “Did you see the Ferris Bueller ad for Honda?” and looking for Easter eggs in it. It’s great when a marketing plan comes together. The Acura ad for the recently announced NSX, titled Transactions, on the other hand, is a more interesting ad and ad buy when it comes to car enthusiasts.

To begin with, why is Honda/Acura spending millions of dollars promoting a halo car that won’t be on sale for three years (or less, maybe two years, if the company written patter the product specialists were using during the public days of the NAIAS is any indication)? Right now the NSX is a pure concept. What they showed in Detroit was a “pushmobile”, a styling mock up that was the result of a collaboration between Honda’s design studios in Japan and California. There was no new hybrid Super Handling All Wheel Drive drivetrain with a direct injected (a first for Honda) midship V6 driving the back wheels and two electric motors up front providing AWD. There wasn’t even an interior, just a mockup of a dashboard and steering wheel. Once upon a time just about all concept cars were pushmobiles, styling models used for show duty. In the last decade or so that I’ve been working big auto show previews, though, the trend was definitely towards actual functioning prototypes. In part that’s because a lot of concepts are being considered for actual production. Even some that had no real chance of seeing an assembly line, like the Chrysler ME412 midengine supercar, and the Jeep Hurricane with two functioning Hemi engines and four wheel on-axis steering, could actually start and run, after a fashion. Not the NSX concept. The most movement you’ll see out of this NSX concept will be on an auto show turntable.

Actually it’s a bit ironic that Honda used a pushmobile to introduce the NSX. If there’s one company that does concepts in name only, it’s Honda. For example, the Honda Accord Coupe “Concept” that was introduced at the NAIAS is almost certainly a preproduction prototype. Honda or Acura concepts are almost always a very good look at what an actual production car will be. The NSX hasn’t even been designed from an engineering standpoint. So that’s a departure for Honda.

Another departure is the long lead time. Chevrolet has been criticized for how long it took to get the new Camaro from concept to production. It’s outselling the Mustang right now so maybe creating pent up demand wasn’t a terrible idea, but all Camaro fans had to look at for years after the concept was shown in early ’06 were pictures. The Chevy Volt also took a relatively long time to get to market, though GM was developing a completely new hybrid drivetrain. The production car also ended up looking nothing like the very attractive concept. Not as bad as the production Pontiac Aztek disappointed those who saw the concept, but it still disappointed car enthusiasts. Hopefully the production NSX will retain the concept’s good looks, but spending millions on advertising a car that’s not on sale and won’t be for three years is a risky proposition. Perhaps the Acura marketers see the ad buy as laying the foundation of rebuilding the Acura brand.

Speaking of enthusiasts, one very well executed part of the ad campaign is the use of Seinfeld and Leno themselves. Like the CR-X ad, it’s full of self-referential things, like a cameo appearance of the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld’s sitcom (“I own all the characters,” Jerry says). More important to enthusiasts is that Leno and Seinfeld are among that small group of celebrities or entertainers like Steve McQueen or Patrick Dempsey that have credibility with enthusiasts because we know they are car guys.

Leno’s Big Dog Garage is world famous and Jay’s turned his car collecting into a second career, with Jay Leno’s Garage being a popular web site. While Seinfeld’s collection isn’t as large, his passion for the Porsche brand is known among enthusiasts and he’s spent enough money on his Manhattan garage showplace and on his wife’s own vintage Porsche to merit People magazine level coverage of his cars in the general media.

The ad also plays off the practice, not admired by most enthusiasts, of well-heeled collectors using their money and connections to get access to limited production cars. It’s also, perhaps, a comment on how some exclusive car brands foment competition among marque enthusiasts by offering very small production runs to a hand selected coterie of potential buyers.

The concept of the ad is funny. Seinfeld is looking at the NSX concept, tells a salesman that he has to have the first one and is told that he’s too late, someone else has already gotten dibs on VIN 001. Seinfeld proceeds to offer that Acura customer bribes (that we’re supposed to find humorous) to sell his place on the list to Jerry. Finally, when Jerry eventually convinces him to sell, Jay Leno literally swoops in and offers the guy a better deal.

If I have criticism of the ad itself, it’s that it doesn’t show the new NSX enough, it’s all focused on Jerry, the guy he’s hounding, and Jay Leno. You see the new NSX briefly at the beginning and at the end, with no mention of the words Acura or NSX till just before the “it’s coming” tagline. Of course a lot of commercials these days are so busy entertaining you trying to win CLEOs that they sometimes forget to try to sell you something.

What I find most interesting, from an inside baseball standpoint, is how much or more accurately what Acura had to give Seinfeld and Leno to do the spot. To begin with, both of them are incredibly rich. Seinfeld may be a billionaire by this point (he does indeed, with Larry David, own the Seinfeld show, its characters and more important, the residuals). According to Forbes, he made a quarter of a billion dollars in 1998 alone and his residual payments from the sitcom have been estimated to be $50 million a year or more. He doesn’t work cheap.

Neither does Leno, whose current contract with NBC is reported to be for $150 million. If the two comedians want to work on their chops doing standup, they may do some gigs, but for the most part, they work when they want to.

Call it meta are call it ironic, but for an ad whose concept is someone bribing their way up a list, Honda had to come up with some substantial baksheesh to do this ad itself. If you think using a word for bribery is overdoing it a bit, both Leno and Seinfeld are already fairly closely associated with other brands than Acura.

Leno collect everything and apparently loves anything with a motor and wheels but I think he has a special fondness for GM products. The first car he bought when he came out to California in 1972 was a 1955 Buick Roadmaster that he still owns. In recent years he’s been more formally associated with GM. Jay apparently has had some kind of business relationship with GM that involves the carmaker building him one-off cars and him helping to promote GM products. GM design built him a one of a kind biofueled turbine supercar called the EcoJet and he’s gotten other goodies from the folks at the Tech Center. It’s also clear that he gets special access to GM concepts and GM personnel to film episodes of Jay Leno’s Garage.

Seinfeld, as mentioned, is a noted Porsche collector. He’s got about 50 Porsches including such collectibles as a 959, a 550 Spyder and supposedly the first original 911. Jerry’s got other cool cars – a couple of years back he rolled a vintage Fiat (with no injuries) when the brakes failed and he had to avoid an accident, so he’s not brand exclusive. On the other hand, one reason why Jerry is so rich is that by the time the Seinfeld series ended, NBC was charging Super Bowl ad rates for the show. Jerry likes Porsche cars enough he’s given the company millions of dollars worth of free publicity. His character drove a Saab and George bought the wrong Jo(h)n Voight’s LeBaron convertible but Porsche was all over the Seinfeld show. In early episodes, right over Jerry’s shoulder you could see a Porsche poster with a Black 930 Turbo getting air, but that was not the only Porsche on the show.

From Wikipedia:

[A] Porsche-themed painting, depicting a Porsche 904 GTS race car competing in the 1964 Targa Florio race in Italy, is visible on a wall in his apartment, as well as a Porsche racing poster featuring a 550 Spyder depicting the 1958 Targa Florio. In another episode, he is seen hiding behind a red Porsche 911RS parked on the street. In addition, an issue of Excellence, a Porsche-centered publication, is featured prominently on an outdoor magazine rack in one episode and on at least one occasion he is seen reading an issue of Road and Track magazine from circa 1990 with a cover article on the Porsche 964.

So I have to wonder, what did they have to promise to Seinfeld and Leno not just to do a car ad, but to do a car ad for a brand with which they haven’t previously been associated? Money? As mentioned, if not as rich as Croesus, both men have more money than they can spend. Mere money won’t buy these guys’ automotive affections. They like cars. Ahah! That’s what it is. The ad is even more meta than I thought. Now the only question is who gets VIN 001?

My money’s on Seinfeld. In addition to the long form ad and the short form to follow, Acura has now released a whole series of videos extras, expanding many of the scenes to longer bits. Acura spent a lot of money producing all those videos. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of NSX ads with Jerry over the next three years. When the NSX does go into production, though, I think we can safely guess that Jay will be getting VIN 002.

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