Stories From the Field: Should Your Dealership Abandon Traditional Media?

by Bruno Lucarelli

When I moved from local TV to local Digital Media Sales at in 2004, no one could have anticipated what impact the Internet was having on retail- especially automotive retail. Neither did dealers, apparently, because at that time most auto dealers in the country didn’t have their own website! In the middle of my pitch to bring their inventory to the web, dealers would stop me and say “Wait a minute, is this an Internet thing? Sorry Bruno, we don’t need any of those ‘Internet people’ coming into our store, thanks anyway. We’re gonna sit out the whole Internet thing.

Fast forward to today, when many auto groups are proud of the fact they have gone almost 100% digital in their marketing. I believe this to be a bit extreme. I’m sure big companies like Google have presented compelling data to support this strategy. Despite these impressive presentations, consumers still watch TV at home and in bars, listen to the radio and see outdoor ads. Some even still read a local newspaper.

Were dealers spending way too much money on newspaper? Absolutely. In fact, many print publications were charging in excess of $175 (cost per thousand)- much higher than broadcast TV or radio. This was amazing, considering the fact that print properties can increase their inventory at will, but ad space is limited on broadcast media. That’s why, when people started comparing digital marketing to other media, newspaper advertising budgets were an easy target.

The issue I have with an overly-weighted digital media schedule (80% or more) is the lack of ability to differentiate between dealerships. Google stacks ad presence based on how much the sponsor has paid, and a dealership’s potential customers will react mainly to ads placed with monthly payment pricing, no matter which dealership uses that ad schedule. This is the aspect of the “Internet thing” that dealers predicted 15 years ago, and it certainly is trimming profits to the bone.

That’s why it’s a good idea for dealerships to diversify their marketing budget, and be smart about their local media market. Valuable marketing opportunities are found in all the media that digital agencies write off as “old” media- TV, radio, event presence, and even print. Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind as marketing teams work to truly connect their dealerships to their communities. 

Broadcast TV and Cable

Nielsen estimates that in the third quarter of 2018, 35-49 year-olds watched 3 hours and 34 minutes of traditional TV per day. This is a critical demo for most auto dealers, as prospective shoppers over 35 have more stable income and assets than younger consumers. A smart local marketer should not give up the chance to reach this audience that spends over 24 hours per week on this medium.

Dealers located in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or another major market won’t see many “Tier 3” Dealer TV broadcast spots, but a lot of “Tier 2” Ad Association ads remain. Medium and smaller markets have a much more competitive TV space, with local dealers buying broadcast spots from $500 to $1000. Of course, every market offers an opportunity to purchase local cable in this price range, but most dealers don’t have the in-house capabilities to analyze their cable buys to ensure they’re getting the most for their money. 

Time shifting is also an issue on both broadcast and cable. This is where prospects fast forward through your commercials. A way to work around this problem is to keep the offer that you’re highlighting on the screen for at least half the ad. That ensures that even fast-forwarding viewers will see it for several seconds. 

Most sports and news watchers don’t time shift, so a smart TV advertising strategy mixes live sports and local news for the highest return possible. 

In both news and sports, ask for spots around weather segments, pre- and post- game shows, locally-focused features and other higher profile shows. If you spend enough, you should be offered these opportunities.


It’s worth considering radio for a number of reasons, but especially because it has the advantage of having passive consumers: people at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, in the car on their way to work, etc. However, the best part of radio is the pre-segmented audience, which takes care of one of the biggest marketing challenges. 

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Some things are just reliably true: the younger audiences tune into alternative rock and hip-hop stations, and older customers on news and classic rock stations. Sports radio is also a great way to reach a defined audience, including people listening to high school and college games. If there is a college radio station in the area, that is worth exploring as well. College radio stations have a large local following, and they will take sponsors. Dealerships selling brands that target younger demographics such as Nissan and Volkswagen could benefit from sponsoring local radio events as well.

Dealerships in high profile markets can also target smaller stations that serve a limited area. The cost per spot will be lower, but your cost per thousands should be comparable. However, the advantage is that you’re targeting a limited radius within the area of your dealership, so you have an audience that is more local and more likely to come in.

A way to ensure a radio spot makes a big impact is to negotiate a live read. This engrains the dealership into the fabric of the show itself, and doesn’t sound like just another commercial. 

Even though squeaky wheels are never a good sign in a car, it’s great to be a squeaky wheel client, especially when dealing with radio. Just by asking for more, dealerships will be surprised to see what radio stations can come up with: concert tickets for in-store giveaways, drive time spots, and potential sponsorship opportunities that involve exposure of your brand. Radio station websites get traffic too, so certainly ask about that part of your advertising package. It’s also possible to create a special landing page to track the effectiveness of your link.


I can never figure out why dealers fail to put an offer on a billboard. In today’s price-shopping society, an appealing lease or purchase offer is a powerful tool that will potentially be seen by thousands of drivers a day, and it’s a great way to conquest other dealers. Taking a spot outside of a store’s primary market area to advertise a low lease offer might just snag some bargain-conscious shoppers from competitors. It’s a bolder branding strategy that just requires some innovation, carefully-planned deals, and the dealership website displayed prominently.

Of course, prospective car buyers aren’t the only people who should comparison-shop. Researching local outdoor advertising companies may yield significant differences in regards to rates, scheduling, and viewership. It may take some time to discern the best deal, but it’s worth it. 


Remember that newspaper rep that used to take 80% of the budget? Now that the dust has (somewhat) settled and the rates are far more competitive than they used to be, now is the time to buy up some print advertising. Internet and specialty editions of magazines and newspapers present a unique opportunity to negotiate a better deal.


There are still print opportunities in every market. These include alternative newspapers, specialty publications targeting select demographics, and local college or university newspapers. The great news is that these businesses are always looking to add a car dealer to their stable of advertisers and in the case of a college newspaper, it’ll be at a significant bargain.

Event Marketing

State fairs. County fairs. Food festivals. Music festivals. Carnivals. Every region has an event that presents an opportunity for a dealership to make their literal presence known. These events are an opportunity to showcase a few inventory highlights, and to give the community a chance to meet with some stales team members, ask questions, and even set up appointments.

Being well-placed at one of these events is key, so negotiating a good high-traffic spot away from other car dealerships is advisable. Plus, swag goes a long way: cheap, fun, march with the dealership logo and website purchased in bulk will lead to hundreds of people wearing (and showcasing) the brand.

There’s no doubt that local auto dealers were overpaying for media in the eighties and nineties, but completely ignoring these opportunities in 2019 in favor of an all-digital strategy neglects a huge market of prospective shoppers. There are still some excellent ways to connect with communities through traditional local media. It just requires a savvy marketer and a dealership willing to use diverse, broad strategies to ensure they’re getting the most for their money. 

Bruno Lucarelli is co-founder of MSS Auto, owners of the Vin-UP Service Lane Cash Offer Coupon Program. He is the former head of advertising sales for eBay Motors, and is a veteran of Autotrader, Edmunds and CBS-TV.