Mazda Drops Garner to Try New Route in Commercials

Times Staff Writer

Actor James Garner's four-year stint as a spokesman for Mazda is about to run its last lap.

The Japanese auto maker, which is making major changes in its car line, said Thursday that it would drop Garner when his contract expires in March.

"We want the cars to be the stars," said Janet Thompson, vice president of advertising at Mazda Motor Corp. "Although James Garner really put the Mazda name out there, we've decided to now focus on the individual personalities of our models."

The move by Mazda has some skeptics scratching their heads. "He's the only image that Mazda advertising has going for it," said Jim Hillson, senior analyst of the Los Angeles commercial research firm Phase One. "Of course, if the only thing you have going for you is a celebrity spokesman, maybe it's time to start afresh."

New Voice

Also, Mazda's U.S. car sales were up considerably in 1988, while most importers saw sizable sales declines last year.

Garner, who was paid an estimated $1 million annually by Mazda, was unavailable for comment Thursday. He was outside California, scouting locations for a new movie that his production company plans to film later this year. Garner, 61, only recently recovered from quintuple heart bypass surgery, which had sidelined him not only as promoter of Mazda, but also as a spokesman for the Beef Industry Council.

Mazda's current campaign, which features Garner's voice but not his face, will be re-shot with a new voice in the background. Those ads will run until Mazda's new campaign begins in July, said Mazda's Thompson.

That new campaign is still being created by Mazda's ad agency, FCB/Orange County. James F. Barr, executive creative director at the agency, said it will be a tough act to follow. "It's sad to see him go," said Barr, "but he represents the past, and Mazda has a whole new line to communicate."

'Lag Time'

Mazda's print ads never used Garner. "Without his voice and movements, we didn't think he'd be as effective," Barr said. Instead, the print ads focus exclusively on the cars--which is exactly the path Mazda intends to take on television.

Meanwhile, Garner--who is, perhaps better known for his chatty commercials for Polaroid that co-starred Mariette Hartley--is already considering other possibilities in commercials. "He'd like to have some lag time before doing another automobile commercial," said Charles Stern, president of a firm that represents Garner. "But we're looking at all kinds of things." He declined to elaborate.

Just how successful was Garner as a Mazda spokesman? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

While Garner's ads for Polaroid and the Beef Industry Council rated highly with consumers, his Mazda ads were not particularly memorable to thousands of consumers polled by Video Storyboard Tests, a New York research firm that tracks TV commercials.

But one celebrity broker--who does not represent Garner--said Garner was extremely effective. "Keep in mind, four years is a long time to be a spokesman for anything," said Alann Heldfond, vice president at Los Angeles-based Ingels Inc. "Most celebrities would be very happy to be on the air for four years."

The tell-tale sign of problems between a company and its celebrity spokesman is when that celebrity lasts less than six months, Heldfond said. The Beef Industry Council, for example, dumped actress Cybill Shepherd shortly after she admitted in a magazine interview that she didn't eat much red meat.

Garner made no such blunders with Mazda. In fact, the company provided him with three sporty Mazda cars and a truck that he drives regularly. Will he now have to return them? "No," said Stern, his agent, "they're his."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World