SILTANEN/1stjc//mark2nd

By Wade Daniels

Contributing Reporter

A wide smile creeps across Rob Siltanen's face as he starts to drop hints about the TV spots his team has just finished developing for Infiniti, Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. luxury car line.

Siltanen, a creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day Inc., predicts they will cause the same stir that resulted when Nissan's "Life is a Journey Enjoy the Ride" campaign first hit the airwaves during last summer's Olympics.

The most popular ad in the series was a stop-action animation piece in which a macho male doll comes to life in a young boy's deserted bedroom full of toys. He jumps into a red convertible and speeds through the house, picking up a foxy doll passenger from her dollhouse.

At the end, the camera pans to the smiling face of the campaign's icon who appears in each ad, a cuddly old Japanese man named Mr. K.

The ads, part of a $200 million Nissan campaign for which Siltanen acted as creative director, have won numerous awards and even got Siltanen a couple of guest spots on "Oprah."

The campaign has also brought in a plethora of business and inquiries including a $200 million account last month from Taco Bell.

"People from other agencies come up to me and thank me for performing a public service and showing advertisers that advertisements don't have to be so boring," Siltanen said.

For Siltanen, 33, seeing his team's work achieving such prominence is a dream he hardly could have imagined back in high school in Portland, where he set his sights on being an ad man because it was a way to satisfy his love for writing and artistry.

His first job was at BBDO West, working on the Apple Computers Inc. account, but the true apple of Siltanen's eye was a job at Chiat/Day with its building on Main Street in Santa Monica that looks like a pair of giant binoculars; he scoped it as "the true creative force in town."

He landed the job in 1989 at the age of 26 and worked on well-known campaigns such as the Energizer bunny and Reebok then on the Nissan campaign.

When he started that assignment, Nissan was in trouble, a distant third in sales behind American Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. and within thumping distance from Mazda Motor Corp.

Siltanen, whose family all owned Hondas at the time, said his strategy was to devise a campaign that would get the folks back home into Nissans. He figured that his parents were like a lot of people who may dream of owning a luxury car, but could never lay out the bucks for one.

When Nissan was readying the introduction of its new Altima, Siltanen figured out a way to portray it as "The Affordable Luxury Sedan." He crafted ads that had the $13,000 car mimicking tricks that were done with cars such as the Lexus, such as balancing dozens of champagne glasses on car hoods at high speeds.

The commercials were a hit, and Nissan shot ahead of Honda in sales for 23 of the next 24 months and even surpassed Toyota for two months.

It was a year and a half ago that Nissan U.S.A. Chairman Bob Thomas told Siltanen that it was time for Chiat/Day to craft something "really creative," something that would "stretch the brand out a little bit more."

More than just advertise cars, Thomas said he wanted a figure or icon that people would identify with something on a par with the Energizer bunny. In their brainstorming, the team came across tales of Nissan's mercurial founder, Kataka Katayama. The icon, Mr. K, was modeled on Katayama, whose numerous speeding tickets, kite flying and random announcements of staff days off from work epitomized the spirit they were looking for.

Mr. K shows up briefly at the end of each Nissan TV spot, enigmatic and smiling.

While the comercials sent ripples through the ad industry, some question whether they actually sell cars.

Mike Kamins, associate professor of marketing at USC's Marshall School of Business, said he was puzzled by the ads, particularly by the presence of Mr. K.

"I don't get the gist of why he's there in the commercials, I mean I think he makes sense to the people at Nissan who know his story, but for me as a consumer I'm wondering who he is and why he's there," Kamins said.

Kamins said he was also aware of data showing that while Nissan sales have risen in the months since the campaign began, sales for Toyota and Honda have risen more.

Some Nissan dealers have complained about the ad, noting that the car portrayed in the "Toys" spot is not a specific model but bears a resemblance to the Nissan 300 ZX a car Nissan no longer manufactures.

But sales people interviewed at several Los Angeles area dealerships said the ad served its purpose.

"What these ads do is put an image into people's minds," said Larry Singh, sales manager at Universal City Nissan Inc. "All we know is that since the ads have been running our sales traffic coming in has increased."

Lee Klein, a salesman at Foothill Nissan in La Crescenta, said it's hard to know whether the ads boost sales.

"I think the new ads are kind of interesting but it's hard to say whether they translate into higher sales or not because it sometimes takes six to 10 months to register," Klein said. "For now, sales are somewhat slow and usually are around income tax time."

Siltanen, however, said he has no doubts about the campaign's effectiveness.

"My goal is to do the same thing for Infiniti," he concluded, referring to the ads slated to appear in May. "And I think we just did it."

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