Detroit: The naked truth
Jason Vines is a former PR executive for Chrysler, Nissan and Ford.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jason Vines has worked as a public relations executive for Chrysler, Nissan and Ford for nearly 30 years and knows where many of the bodies-in-white are buried. Here, Vines provides his own perspective and memories of an auto show that has, in his view, been in turn spectacular and infuriating.
The North American International Auto Show. Rolls off your tongue like a celery stalk stuffed with peanut butter. The Detroit Auto Show, what it used to be and should continue to be called, is the finest in the world for one reason: It has the best theater among the major shows. Even better, sometimes the theater is unplanned.
I credit my colleagues at Chrysler, especially my former bosses Tom Kowaleski and Steve Harris, for putting the show in auto show. It started in 1992 with a Jeep Grand Cherokee, driven by Bob Lutz with Mayor Coleman Young riding shotgun, crashing through the glass doors of Cobo, showing that a Jeep could go anywhere. In 1995 Chrysler got headlines when one of its minivans starred in a fairy tale production that ended with the vehicle leaping into a pond. It was a bit of show biz that had a clear message: Chrysler was leapfrogging the competition.
Of course, there have been lowlights at Cobo, mostly led by General Motors trying to "out-creative" Chrysler. The mid-'90s introduction of the redesigned Corvette included flatulence and booger jokes. No kidding. It was perhaps the worst unveiling of all time.
It was Kowaleski's creative genius that inspired the greatest NAIAS debacle; at least financially. He wanted to unveil the Plymouth Prowler with the music of ZZ Top. Kowaleski had his minions inquire about rights to the music. The band's agent, if I remember correctly, wanted between $5,000 and $10,000 for the one-time usage of the music. Kowaleski said, "No way," and decided to pilfer the soundtrack instead. ZZ Top found out. Chrysler later settled a lawsuit in the low seven figures -- sending the message that, if you are going to steal, don't call in advance and say you are coming.
A couple years later, NAIAS would serve as a battleground in a war of words among the PR staffs of Ford, GM and Chrysler. Actually, it was Ford against GM and Chrysler. Ford was hell bent on pitching itself as the greenest of the Big 3. In its first press conference of the 1998 show, the company announced it would make a "clean" SUV. This sent Chrysler and GM executives into a tizzy, not because Ford was trying to one-up its major home-town competitors, but rather because Ford was implying that current SUVs were unclean.
That announcement gave ammo to the loons calling for a ban of SUVs. In the next day's Wall Street Journal, an "unnamed" Chrysler spokesperson, ahem, was quoted calling Ford's announcement "stupid." With his WSJ in hand, my boss, Steve Harris, confronted me and asked, "Is this your quote?"
I confessed that it was. Harris responded: "Well, Jason, [Ford CEO] Jacques Nasser is throwing out his remarks for their press conference today and is going to slap us around instead." Heart in my throat, I made a beeline for Ford's booth. Ford PR lieutenant Ken Zino intercepted me on my way to apologize to Nasser. Turns out we both needed to apologize. Zino had discovered that Ford's announcement had set off a fire storm against the industry in general. We shook hands, Nasser didn't shred Chrysler, and the show went on.
By the next NAIAS, I was on a new team, working for a basically bankrupt Nissan. We were treading water, looking for a rescuer before we drowned. A good showing at Detroit was vital to keep any hope alive. Our last gasp was to show the all-new Xterra SUV and a concept version of a Z -- several years after Nissan had unwisely given up on its signature sports car.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn't paying attention to our urgent need for a lifeline and unloaded a blizzard on helpless Detroit.
All the Northworst flights were canceled. Our cars were in Detroit, but our executives were stranded in L.A. I wanted to cry. Nissan's travel planner called us with the last private jet out of town, available for a mere $35,000. We had minutes to decide, and we didn't have two pennies to rub together. I called my boss and smoking buddy, CEO Minoru Nakamura, and told him the news. After a moment of incredulity at the price tag, he asked, "Jason-san, do you have a seat for me?" Show time!
Perhaps the greatest unplanned unveiling was in 2006. On the first day of the show, Chrysler displayed a concept version of the retro-styled Dodge Challenger. Just past midnight, a rather inebriated woman decided to sneak into Cobo, disrobe and turn herself into a human chamois on the Challenger's hood. She was quickly escorted out by security. The news spread like wildfire. Despite charges that Chrysler PR was behind the stunt, the naked truth is that it was not. However, Chrysler did issue a statement: "We want our customers to love this car; just not this way."
The greatest Detroit product reveal with a twist was certainly the 2008 cattle drive to unveil the new Dodge Ram pickup. The plan was to have longhorn steers paraded through the streets of Detroit, Ram in tow. Even though then-Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli wanted to kill the outrageous reveal, we did it anyway.
The twist? Agency Clear Blue had rented a parking lot a few blocks from Cobo to house the cattle prior to the unveiling. The night before the cattle were to arrive, a vagrant-turned-valet took command of the parking lot and turned it into his own private Idaho, charging people to park. All the cars were subsequently towed once the longhorns arrived at midnight.
It got even better. When the longhorns were corralled in front of Cobo, the most dominant bovines started to command their turf by mounting their weaker brethren. The videos went viral, and the Dodge Ram garnered twice the media coverage of the new Ford F series -- the most popular pickup in the world -- unveiled the same day.