Why Did Honda Use the Detroit Bankruptcy in a Civic Ad?

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Honda (NYSE:HMC) is proud of its new cars, but the Japanese automaker may have stretched the boundaries of good taste with the ad for the redesigned Civic Coupe. According to The Detorit News, Honda’s TV spot titled “Today is Pretty Great” featured demonstrators outside the Detroit bankruptcy and caused enough anger in the community that the footage was changed. In a competitive auto market featuring rejuvenated Detroit automakers, it’s unclear what strategy Honda had in mind with the ad.

The “Today is Pretty Great” ad is aimed at a younger audience. Filled with teens and twenty-somethings breezing down the road in sporty Honda cars, the emphasis of the revised ad is on the brighter side of things, a contrast to the ad’s opening images of a blues duo and mock broadcast by PB (“Pretty Bad”) News. The original ad had opening shots featuring protesters outside of the Detroit courthouse where the city’s bankruptcy is being litigated.

Local Michigan residents quickly showed their dissatisfaction with the Honda spot. The National Action Network’s Rev. Charles Williams II, who is leading the protests in Detroit, described the ad as “a slap in the face” to the city and an example OF Honda “using [Detroit residents’] pain for their pleasure,” The Detroit News reported.

The pushback from Williams and other locals led Honda to pull the protest footage and replacE it with a sign reading “Bankruptcy Court” and images of a bulldozer in a landfill. However, it’s unclear why Honda considered the original ad worthy of auto industry consumers in 2014.

A spokesperson for Honda suggested the ad’s creators weren’t thinking much at all when designing the car commercial.

“The original intent of the commercial obviously was not intended to represent Detroit or the challenges experienced by the city, its people or our industry,” a Honda rep told The Detroit News. That statement defies logic, considering the association of Detroit with the auto industry, its workforce, and the city as a symbol of financial turmoil. The current state of the city’s finances was anticipated in the bankruptcy of Chrysler (FIATY.PK) and General Motors (NYSE:GM), the country’s largest automaker.

Using the images of Detroit’s bankruptcy in presenting the vision of a world that’s “pretty bad,” Honda made a significant PR blunder to market its new cars. Maybe the generation to which it is marketing the cars won’t take the ad as a personal slight. However, continued controversy stoked by the protesters and their leaders could weigh on the automaker for months to come. The entire flap is out of character for a company that was behind many great auto ads of the past.

After all, if an auto consumer is looking for a stylish, affordable, and economical ride, there’s no reason one wouldn’t opt for a car from the Detroit Three. They’re back in play.

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