Detroit Auto Show at 25

Chrysler's showbiz touch changed show unveilings

Motown became Moo-Town in 2008 when cowpokes drove a herd of 120 longhorn cattle down Detroit's Washington Boulevard in front of Cobo, part of Dodge's launch of the 2009 Ram pickup.
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Showtime.

That best describes how Chrysler changed the way automakers conducted auto show press conferences.

In the 1990s, fresh off its near-death rescue by Lee Iacocca and the American taxpayer, Chrysler Corp. realized that being gutsy No. 3 gave it the freedom to take chances.

In addition to an outpouring of cool concepts and production cars, Chrysler's press conferences changed the stale formula of rote recounting of sales data and production figures, followed by slinky models yanking the silk cover off the car. The play was the thing.

Lutz (left): Wild ideas were the norm; Eaton: He joined in on the fun.

"We knew we had to do something to stand out," recalls Steve Harris, who was Chrysler's director of corporate public relations when the company staged its most theatrical press conferences.

Many of the ideas Chrysler staged in the 1990s are key moments of the show's 25-year highlight reel:

• The Jeep Grand Cherokee's 1992 entrance into Cobo Hall, up the stairs and through a plate glass window -- President Bob Lutz behind the wheel, Mayor Coleman Young riding shotgun.

• The dramatically styled Dodge Ram pickup dropping from the ceiling onto the stage in 1993.

• Actor Peter Graves reprising his TV role of Jim Phelps from "Mission: Impossible" at the 1994 show for the Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Cirrus sedans, accentuating the enormity of taking on Honda and Toyota.

• The 1995 debut of the second-generation minivan featuring Kermit the Frog in the driver's seat of a Chrysler Town & Country, "leap-frogging" over a waterfall.

These antics propelled Chrysler off the business page and onto the front page and TV evening news, said Tom Kowaleski, who was director of product, platform and technical public relations at the time.

"We started to build a broader audience than the automotive and business media who covered industry 365 days a year," Kowaleski said.

A Jeep Grand Cherokee crashes through a plate-glass window at Cobo Hall during the 1992 show, setting a splashy tone for Chrysler’s future debuts.

No waiting


Lutz had no problem appearing dressed as Mr. Rogers and reading nursery rhymes while he and Chrysler Chairman Bob Eaton introduced the new minivans.

"Outrageous and irreverent is exactly what we wanted," Lutz said. "At that time, almost everyone at Chrysler was from somewhere else. We were a highly creative bunch of guys, and the result was the unconventional, to try different things. The attitudes we displayed at those press conferences was exactly the mind-set of the whole company."

Before Lutz signed off on an idea, he wanted to know all the technical details of how the display would be executed.

"I always worried if a particular stunt would work," Lutz said. "Those were questions I always asked. Nothing would be more embarrassing than waiting for the truck to drop, and waiting and waiting and waiting ..."

The Grand Cherokee spectacle created an avalanche of publicity. About nine months after the Jeep smashed through the window, Kowaleski was in Europe and he saw video of the event replayed on TV. He realized Chrysler was on to something.

"If you do them properly, they are not just events of the moment. Every one of those press conferences has a clear compelling story about the brand or the company," Kowaleski said.

Chrysler created DurangOs cereal, liberally borrowing the Wheaties box style, to promote the SUV.

Can you top this?


The unforeseen consequence: The pressure to come up with something spectacular every year. The automaker would be forced to tell a great story and have some kind of event that would keep the audience riveted to the stage. If the story wasn't enough, Chrysler created coveted giveaways -- such as boxes of "DurangOs" cereal -- to seal the event in the media's mind.

"They were million-dollar-plus activities," Harris said. "Not many other companies were doing it on the same scale. We brought in Broadway production talent for building sets, pyrotechnics. That cost money. But when people would see the share of voice and coverage we were getting, they all realized it was money well spent."

To emphasize its claim that the Ram 2500 and 3500 Heavy Duty pickup trucks would turn the segment upside down, the brand hammered a 2500 HD to the ceiling of its display at the 2010 show, an idea conceived of by Chrysler Group’s new marketing chief, Olivier Francois.

Other automakers noticed Chrysler's dominance of the media and started trying to copy the formula.

Kowaleski recalls taking a sneak peak before press days a few years later. "It was the last weekend of setup. I walked into Cobo and saw a sea of black two-story high pipe and drape. I thought, 'My god, we created all this hysteria.' All of a sudden everyone was playing."

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.


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