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New York Auto Show: Kia Hamsters Score One for Gut Instinct

The Kia hamsters are giving each other tiny high-fives after winning a "Best Ad" award from Nielsen Automotive at the New York Auto Show. But the little critters that launched the popular Kia Soul last year also demonstrate that car companies and other advertisers still make risky, big-money marketing decisions in part by gut instinct.

After winning the award, Kia marketing boss Michael Sprague thanked his ad agency, David & Goliath, plus his own team for coming up with the ad. But he also hinted that his first inclination was to shoot down the idea, because he also thanked the team for "talking me into doing it."

In fact, Sprague shelved the Kia hamsters after that first campaign last year in favor of "more serious" images. After the hamsters became undeniably popular on YouTube, he promised last year and again at the auto show to revive the Kia hamsters for future campaigns.

"You'll be seeing more hamsters," he said.

Marketers like Sprague still need to go out on a limb occasionally, in part because market research is having a tough time keeping up with the growth in online media. Despite a lot of lip service among big corporations for "data-based decisions," that means a lot of choices come down to personal preference, however well-informed that personal preference is.

That's especially true now that there's so much consumer-generated buzz, and even more so now that there's so much buzz ricocheting around hand-held devices.

Lois Miller, president of Nielsen Automotive, said at the auto show that an estimated 138 million Americans watch video on the Internet an average of three hours per month and rising fast. She said 13 million viewers watch an average of 3.5 hours of video on their smartphones.

Nielsen measures online buzz in part by getting people to come to their Web site to answer questions about what they've seen. Miller said 2.5 million viewers come to the company's site.

That sounds impressive, but in some ways it's not much of an improvement over old-fashioned paper surveys, except the online format is more convenient and makes it easier for people to view images. What remains old-fashioned is that instead of measuring actual behavior, survey data still relies on imperfect recall of what people watched.

Traditionally based market research companies like Nielsen can take some comfort from the fact that TV viewership is up, and that's easier to measure. Miller said the average American watched 153 hours of TV last year, up 1.2 percent.

"That's the good news," she said.

Photo: Kia