In the early ‘60s Honda was looking to improve its market share in the U.S. Selling 40,000 motorcycles a year, American Honda’s General Manager Kihachiro Kawashima set a far more ambitious goal of 200,000 annual sales. To hock its bikes on the American consumer, Honda turned to the advertising heavies at New York’s Madison Avenue. The result was the longest-running and most well-known ad campaign in US motorcycle history. Honda is now returning to those glamorous ‘60s-era Madison Avenue digs on the small screen thanks to the hit AMC show Mad Men.
The character-driven period piece, now in its fourth season, has reached the height of popularity dramatizing the hard-drinking, brand builders in advertising. Part of the appeal of Mad Men is how it melds history and fiction, with the show featuring some of the monumental brands that endure today. For example, Lucky Strike is the fictional firm’s biggest client, and brands like Clearasil, John Deere and Hilton have also been instrumental in plot lines. After its latest episode, dubbed “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, Honda has been added to the list as well.
From its humble beginnings in a small storefront in Los Angeles, American Honda began introducing the company’s motorcycles to the US populace.
Kihachiro Kawashima, then General Manager of American Honda (left), and Takeo Fujisawa, then Senior Managing Director of Honda Motor (second from right) pose in front of You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda advertising poster.
The interesting thing is that many of the brands, like Heineken and Cadillac, have reportedly paid for their product placement into Man Men’s story lines. It’s a savvy way for brands to generate exposure on television – particularly when many viewers now fast-forward through commercials via DVR. It’s a deft marketing concept that could have come straight off the liquor-stained cocktail napkin of the show’s protagonist, ad man Don Draper.
But not all the brands mentioned in the show are buying their way in. Some are used without approval. American Honda media relations and its advertising agency reps have confirmed they were unaware of the exposure on the show prior to its airing. Turns out they were as surprised as us to find Big Red in the creative sites of AMC.
The Honda episode plot centers on the Japanese manufacturer’s bid for a large three-million dollar advertising account. Draper and his firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, are courting the Japanese marque along with a host of rival firms. The main source of conflict in the episode comes when one of the other partners offends the Honda representatives. The man, a naval veteran of the Second World War, objects to doing business with a Japanese company and uses derogatory language (certainly the language would have been sanitized if Honda was an official product placement).
Mad Men uses Honda, in this first episode, as a foil to discuss the nuances in business customs between West and East. Of course, the anti-hero Draper saves the day by undermining his firm’s main rival by Machiavellian deception, convincing them to break the rules of the bidding process by going over budget and creating a television commercial. He then gains favor with the fictional Honda reps by resigning from the competition after complaining that the other firm did not honor the terms.
It seems certain the Honda plotline will continue to simmer as a recurring theme throughout the season. If so, it stands to reason that the Mad Men writers will mine the existing advertising history of Honda Motorcycles in America – including the firm’s wildly successful “Nicest People” campaign.
Says Honda PR of its popular campaign: “The company’s memorable advertising campaign, ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda,’ changed American’s perception of two-wheel transportation.”
That famous collaboration with Honda and Madison Avenue came when the real-world ad firm Grey Advertising came up with the slogan “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” Depicting non-traditional riders like housewives and students making practical use of the company’s small-displacement motorbikes, already brisk sales boomed.
Grey Advertising followed up its original success with another bold gambit, having American Honda sponsor the Academy Awards. The planned two 90-second commercials during the Award show would reach an expected 70-80% of television viewers (unheard of saturation considering today’s fragmented television audience), but they would also cost $300,000. Considering the Honda 50 retailed for $245, it was staggering sum and risky investment.
“When I heard they wanted $300,000, I had serious reason to pause and think about it,” said Kawashima in Honda media information. “But [Takeo] Fujisawa (right-hand man to company founder Soichiro Honda) had always told me that great opportunities weren’t so easy to come by. So, I decided to go for it. ‘Let’s do it,’ I said. But to be honest, I was pretty nervous.”
The gamble paid off with the ads and sponsorship generating unprecedented exposure for a motorcycle company. The Nicest People campaign would go on to run for years, earning its place as the most celebrated ad campaign in the industry, with the slogan still resonating to this day.
Honda’s free exposure vis-à-vis Mad Men is a drop in the bucket compared the original favor from those real-life Mad Men. Yet even the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world doesn’t figure to decry air time on one of the hottest shows on TV – particularly in the current era of barebones budgets. Of course, Hollywood can and will take plenty of liberties with its ad history revision, and it should be noted that not all its subjects are portrayed in a favorable light.
But if we’re betting, expect Don Draper to come through for Honda too. Glass of rye and ubiquitous cigarette in hand, at the moment of crisis he’ll flash an “of course” look before muttering “The nicest people ride a Honda…”