Honda Seeks to Clear the Air Over Ads


American Honda Motors Co. has a big job for Mr. Clean.

The auto maker has been using Mr. Clean in ads that tout Honda's reputation as an environmentally friendly car company. But last week, Honda was cast as a polluter when it paid the largest fine ever levied under the Clear Air Act.

Honda spokesman Art Garner said the auto maker plans to continue running the ads about Honda's clean-burning engines--though some experts say the company risks offending consumers.

"If people see the ads right now, Honda runs the risk of being seen as a manipulator of the media," said Larry Kopald, a Los Angeles ad executive who once developed ads for Acura, Honda's luxury car division. "It does make them seem a little foolish."

Garner said the Clean Air Act settlement doesn't contradict the message in the ads. The allegations arose from a "misinterpretation" of federal rules, he said.

"We meet or exceed every requirement," Garner said.

Along with Ford Motor Co., Honda last week agreed to pay millions in fines for designing cars that passed emissions tests but ran dirtier on the road. Honda agreed to pay the largest settlement costs--including $12.5 million in civil penalties and remedial measures the government said could cost up to $250 million.

The case against Honda involved 1.6 million Acura and Honda vehicles built in 1996 and 1997. The government alleged Honda programmed its emissions control system to ignore spark plug failures. Honda said it was trying to minimize the number of times the "check engine" light went on.

Honda launched its $20-million-to-$30-million environmental campaign last November--at a time when investigators say the probe was already underway. As part of an unusual agreement with Procter & Gamble, Honda used the bald, muscular Mr. Clean in its ads to build its reputation for spotlessness.

In one TV commercial that also shows a low-emission lawn mower and outboard boat motor, Mr. Clean strides up to a white Honda Accord, and winks. "If you use these Honda products," an announcer says, "what will the neighbors call you?"

The campaign was created by Rubin Postaer & Associates of Santa Monica.

P&G; spokesman Damon Jones said the company was surprised by the allegations against Honda, but had no comment on them. He said P&G; agreed to let Honda use Mr. Clean for a year, in part to grab the attention of people under 30.

Image consultants said Mr. Clean would probably emerge from the episode without getting dirty.

"I don't see any backwash," said Clay Timon, chairman of Landor Associates, a San Francisco image consulting firm. The ads, which have been running for months, may protect Honda from consumer backlash as well, Timon said.

"They've created an image of Honda as fuel-efficient, with engines that don't pollute, well in advance of [the settlement] coming down," he said. Consequently, consumers are likely to dismiss the emissions control case as out of character for Honda, he said.

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