DETROIT -- Mary Barra isn't the only woman drawing crowds at the North American International Auto Show.
The General Motors CEO, the first female to head a global automaker, is a big pull, trailed by press scrums so large that bystanders risk being trampled. Among the other women attracting flocks of photographers are product models in form-fitting outfits pitching her cars.
The juxtaposition in Detroit's Cobo Center this week highlights the strange business of selling autos in the United States. Market research shows women influence most buying decisions, while men make up the bulk of spectators at the pivotal exhibitions where new vehicles are unveiled and scrutinzed.
As Barra's ascent underscores, women are breaking barriers in the industry, said Karl Brauer, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book Co. "I don't know if you've had as much of a shift in the auto show atmosphere -- I don't think there's as much pressure, for better or worse, to change that."
That's because pairing cars with attractive pitchers works, said Margery Krevsky, CEO of the Productions Plus talent agency and author of "Sirens of Chrome: The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models," whose cover is a shot of a woman in a mermaid costume draped across the hood of a Plymouth Barracuda.
"It brings a great marketing benefit," said Krevsky, whose agency sent more than 300 specialists to the Detroit show to work for 17 automakers.
Whatever they're wearing, the women -- and men -- who promote cars go through intense training and can give detailed answers to technical questions, said Jeff MacLean, senior vice president of Gail & Rice, an agency with specialists working for 13 different brands in Detroit.
"Auto show models went out 30 years ago," he said. "The profession has changed." He added that the gender mix among the Gail & Rice crew "is pretty equal."
The first product specialists were male. In 1909, a lone woman appeared at the International Automobile Show in New York, according to Krevsky. She said men make up about a quarter of her agency's promotional models.
On Wednesday -- the day Barra, 52, took the reins at GM -- product specialists ran the gamut. There was a brunette in a white mini-dress and go-go boots showing off Chrysler Group's Dodge Challenger, two women in floor-length black gowns flanking a Lincoln and a pregnant promoter in a blue maternity dress plugging the two-seater Smart car from Daimler AG.
"I don't think it's degrading to women to be standing next to a car," said Jordan Carson, a Toyota Motor Corp. specialist and self-described gearhead who's been working shows around the U.S. for seven years. "It's empowering to be able to have a conversation about the car and everything about it with men." She noted that Toyota pitchers in Detroit wear suits.
At the Tesla Motors Inc. display, Kristin Kerry was in casual pants and a sporty polo shirt. A Miami resident who drives a Pontiac Solstice hard-top, Kerry said the questions she most frequently fields are about speed and cost.
Sometimes, she said, men will hit on her, "but I also work in a nightclub, so I've seen worse."
Kerry said she's been on the product-specialist circuit for a while, also pitching for Rolls-Royce -- and wouldn't ever wear the outfits she's seen on some of her colleagues.
Even with the cleavage-baring fronts and thigh-revealing slits on exhibit in at the Cobo Center, where most of the show takes place, the Detroit models are more conservatively attired than those at events in other countries, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at auto researcher Edmunds.com.
In the United States, "it's gotten more tasteful," she said. "They're a bit tamer than at international shows."
In Bangkok, women tend to wear the miniest of mini-skirts and barely-there tops. At one 2012 show in China, a model made headlines for appearing in panties, pasties and a snake.
Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of both Chrysler and its parent Fiat S.p.A., defended the scantily clad women at the International Geneva Motor Show last year and panned the reporter who asked him about them.
"You must be living in a very secluded environment where people wear long dresses and no high heels," Marchionne said. "And I feel sorry for you."
Product specialists test-drive the cars they'll be pitching and try out competitors' vehicles too, so they'll be able to talk about their brands' strengths, according to one specialist in Detroit who asked not to be named because she's not authorized to talk publicly about her employer.
She said the pay ranges from $150 to $850 a day and most of "the girls," as she called them, are in their early 30s.
GM's Barra did some pitching of her own, introducing the company's GMC Canyon truck during pre-show festivities.
"It's really an honor," she said of being the first female in her job. Heather Rosenker, a spokeswoman for GM, declined to comment on the product specialists.
Michelle Krebs, an independent analyst in Detroit who's covered the industry for 30 years, said women working in the industry probably aren't thrilled that some automakers still adorn their vehicles with models attired to entice men.
"In some sense we've come a long way," Krebs said. "But we have so far to go."