When Don McElwee posted a photograph of the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee on the Internet last week, he was unaware that Chrysler was keeping the sport-utility a secret.
McElwee, a Dodge Durango owner who lives near Philadelphia, thought the new Grand Cherokee shared some styling cues with the Durango.
He innocently thought other Durango owners might enjoy the photo, so he posted it on a Web site.
The photo created a sensation. USA Today published it. Some people suggested Chrysler secretly released it to create a marketing buzz. And it left many people wondering whether any corporate secrets are safe in the Internet age.
NO MORE SECRETS?
This is the second time that an unauthorized photo of a new model has appeared on the Internet prior to its official introduction.
It happened in late 1996, when someone posted a photo of the all-new Chevrolet Corvette on the Internet just weeks before the 1997 model was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Now it has happened with the 1999 Grand Cherokee. Those familiar with Web sites say it is certain to happen again.
Unlike new models caught on test runs in typical spy shots, this 1999 Grand Cherokee is pictured without camouflage.
Whoever took the photo had an unobstructed view. The Jeep appears to be in a desert setting.
McElwee said he did not take the photo, which he posted at www.erols.com/jmcelwee/public/ 1999jgc.jpg.
He received it from another Web site, http: 184.108.40.206/ 1999Jeep.html. Late last week, there was no response from that Web site.
SOONER OR LATER
If Chrysler is miffed about its new Grand Cherokee showing up prematurely on the Internet, the automaker is not letting on. The company says it was expecting some type of spy shot soon anyway.
'It would make a difference if we thought it was an internal photo that had been leaked by someone in here,' said James Holden, Chrysler's executive vice president of sales and marketing. 'But it's clearly something that was shot out on public roads.'
Chrysler will stick to its original plans to unveil the vehicle on June 29.
The incident shows just how quick and easy it has become to circulate an unauthorized photo of a vehicle.
'If anyone gets a shot of anything deemed top secret, it can be put on the Internet quickly and with almost no consequences,' said Rob Bernstein, senior editor at Yahoo! Internet Life magazine in New York. 'Taking any recourse can be very difficult.'
The photo potentially could have fetched 'several thousand dollars,' said Brenda Priddy, a photographer who often snaps unauthorized pictures of new models during road testing.
This Grand Cherokee photo would have had worldwide interest from many publications, she said.
Creating a Web site is simple, Bernstein said. Anyone can buy the necessary software at a computer store and cut and paste a site together, he said.
Bernstein suspects that the Grand Cherokee photo was posted on the Web by an auto enthusiast who took the picture or otherwise obtained the picture.
'It may be a fan who had access to the photo and who thought it would be cool to share it with the rest of the world,' Bernstein said.
Another possibility is that Chrysler masterminded the whole thing, Bernstein said.
'It would be a brilliant move,' he said. 'The Web creates a buzz.'
With the Jeep introduction two months away, Chrysler was expecting a spy photo to surface, said Steve Harris, Chrysler vice president of communications.
'This is a little unique,' Harris said. 'We're still not totally certain how the photo got out there. But we always felt that a good spy photo would exist before we ever got to our own reveal plan.'