The Ad Campaign That Doomed Plymouth: The Cute Neon Says Hi!

In the mid-90s, Chrysler had finally built an all-American compact car that struck fear into the Japanese auto industry. The Neon was pretty quick, looked good, and sipped gas. Then… disaster!

Apparently the focus groups had told Chrysler's marketers- who must have been unaware of the existence of Hello Kitty and her kawai kin- that the Japanese were weak on cuteness, leaving the cute high ground wide-open for the Neon to conquer. The Friendly Car! Take that, Civic!

Well, that didn't work out so well, and it just got worse when crypto-hip marketers decided to take advantage of the buzz created by the Billboard Liberation Front and deface Neon billboards to look as though the BLF had been so taken by the Neon's cool that they couldn't resist changing the "HI" to "CHILL" in addition to spraying on various punk-esque symbols (this was about that same time that a certain blue-jeans company was allegedly considering using the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday In Cambodia" in an ad campaign, though the ingestion of a grain of salt is required whenever considering anything having to do with the Jello-Biafra-versus-the-other-guys wars). Here's an interview with BLF spokesman Jack Napier:

Metropolitan: Does it bother you that advertising itself has gotten so anti-advertising that it's hard to satirize? Something like the Charlie Manson billboard, I don't know if I would know right away that that was a parody anymore. And, as the Bay Guardian article on your site says, there was that Plymouth Neon campaign that was supposed to look as if the billboard had been vandalized to say "Hip" or "Chill."

Jack Napier: In another five years they'll probably be using Charlie Manson to sell stuff. So yeah, we do have to run pretty fast to keep ahead of them. I know some of the advertising agencies are already keeping an eye on the billboard hackers to see what they can use to sell their product. The first time I ran across it I found it annoying, and then I thought I can either be pissed off about this or I can do something about it. It was the Plymouth Neon campaign in '94, and my girlfriend and I were driving around and she said, 'Look, someone did a billboard over here.' So we stopped to look, and it took me about a minute to realize, wait a second, that wasn't a tagger. I was really pissed, and then I thought about it for a while and I started laughing. I knew that the ad executives who came up with that over two or three martinis would be very well paid and that the campaign would be successful, which it was. The Plymouth Neon sold like hotcakes.

The Neon did indeed sell like hotcakes… at first. This has been a boon for 24 Hours Of LeMons racers (who have learned that the Neon gets around a road course as well as a Civic, Integra, or E30 but costs half as much) but the market for car buyers who could tolerate a vehicle sold as "cute" became saturated early on in the Neon's career. After that… why, a man might as well slice his nodules off and feed 'em to unicorns as drive a car that don't look like it yearns to drink baby blood!

Of course, Chrysler figured it out a few years back and learned what real Americans want in a vehicle. No, not door handles that snap off in your hand and a Hyundai-based engine that sounds like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a few yards of jute twine at full throttle- they want menace! Naturally, the marketers totally overdid it. Hit 'em hard, America!