WASHINGTON – Featuring Aiko the Ninja and Mitch the Zombie, Honda’s U.S. marketing campaign for the new, ninth-generation ’12 Civic uses characters inspired by popular live-action and cartoon films to promote the compact car now on sale.

“We feel very strongly the characters are going to become a draw in terms of being appealing and good spokespersons or representatives for the car,” Steve Center, vice president-marketing for American Honda, tells Ward’s here recently.

The characters, which also include Teeny the Monster, Jack the Woodsman and Cesar the Luchador, each represent one of five Civic body style/trim variants and appealed to both young adults and Baby Boomers during pre-launch clinics, which were a first for Honda.

With 250,000-300,000 Civics sold in the U.S. each year, a higher annual volume than most luxury brands can claim, buyers of the compact run the gamut from 18-year-olds to senior citizens.

“We think it’s a youthful campaign, but it’s not alienating to older folks,” Center says. “It doesn’t position the car as a ‘kid’s car, which is something you have to be very careful with.

“People my age and older thought (the campaign) was cool and didn’t find it alienating. In many cases the Boomers took the Gen Y kids to see those movies.”

The ’12 Civic’s tagline, “To Each Their Own,” reflects the different characters/car models.

Aiko the Ninja is behind the wheel of the performance-oriented Civic Si, while Mitch the Zombie, aka an average working stiff, drives the sedan that in the LX grade typically has been the Civic’s top seller.

Jack the Woodsman is a tree-hugger, not a tree cutter, says Center, and showcases the Civic Hybrid. Teeny the Monster, a 4.0-grade student and “maximizer”’ of opportunities, drives the new 41-mpg (5.7-L/100 km) Civic HF. Cesar the Luchador tools around in a Civic coupe.

After two years of researching Gen Y, the auto industry’s “it” generation of auto buyers born between the late 1970s and early 2000s, Honda found a “huge affinity” among younger people for characters from vampires to zombies to monsters, Center says.

“One of the things we discovered is these characters are kind of their friends (and) less of a pitchman,” he says. “One of the aspects of Gen Y is they don’t necessarily accept things from experts. It’s more what their friends think, or some blogger somewhere that their friends trust.

So these (Civic characters) would be seen as comfortable and not imposing or authoritative.”

The Civic characters were developed by Honda’s longtime U.S. ad agency, Santa Monica, CA-based RPA. All five star in one introductory, multi-character spot called “The Apartment” that began airing the week of April 20.

Follow-up ads showcase an individual character and his car’s unique attributes, often mixing in a healthy dose of goofiness.

For instance, in the Civic Hybrid stand-alone commercial, Jack the Woodsman, who has a pet fox, ventures out in his car with his girlfriend. Jack pushes the car’s Econ button for more fuel-efficiency and tiny birds fly out of his beard.

Center admits using five characters to pitch the new Civic is not without its peril, noting the possibility some may not be likeable to a non-focus-group audience or distract from the cars and their particular features.


“The Apartment” showcases all Civic campaign characters.

“If one of these characters is failing, we may have to make a cast change, because I can’t stop advertising the HF,” Center jokes.

Another possible drawback to the campaign is similar marketing by other companies. Center recounts a story about one of his Japanese bosses who on a recent trip home to Japan saw an ad for a Samsung tablet starring an astronaut, Frankenstein and a baseball player.

“(Honda will) have to test (the campaign) to see if it gets worn out,” Center says. However, he told his concerned boss Samsung’s similar ad “just proves we’re on the right track with all of this.”

“To Each Their Own” is due to run for one year, and Center estimates that if not Honda’s most-expensive U.S. marketing campaign, it’s near the top.

In addition to television and print ads, the auto maker will market the new Civic online via 1-day homepage takeovers of YouTube.com and MSN.com, as well as through Facebook contests, which include a songwriting challenge and online scavenger hunt.

The ’12 Honda Civic also is the official vehicle of the National Hockey League, and commercials for the car will appear during the National Basketball Assn. playoffs, as well as during the season finales of the TV shows “NCIS,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Modern Family.”

Honda again is staging its summer “Civic Tour.” A main performer for this year’s concert tour hasn’t been announced yet, but in the past Black Eyed Peas, Maroon 5 and Paramour have headlined.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com