Whatever Lee Iacocca will do for -- or to -- Chrysler's 21st century image has already been done. It was all over but the shouting when news was announced the former chairman would once again appear in corporate advertising to promote a "Me too!" employee-discount-for-all scheme. The ads -- of which there will be only three or perhaps four, and featuring Jason Alexander (best known for his role in Seinfeld) -- will certainly cause less of a stir than did the initial news reports.
For those to whom the name Iacocca translates into "business hero," "father of the Mustang" and "saved Chrysler from bankruptcy," there is a positive uptick. Most such folks are likely to be nearing Iacocca's age -- 80 -- so if they haven't bought their last car yet, they will soon. They may be disappointed to find the 300C excluded from the program, but a non-Hemi 300 with a V6 might suit their needs.
For another generation, primarily boomers like myself, the image of Iacocca will forever be that of the TV huckster, an old-style car salesman with a patter quick enough to slide your butt into a K-car or minivan and then lay on enough razzle-dazzle to get you to sign the paper. Twenty odd years ago it was a bold move to put the chairman in the TV ads and it lent them credibility, but it also transformed Iacocca from a serious business leader to a video celebrity, an image as inflated and short-lived as a balloon.
After getting the company turned around in the early '80s until his retirement in '92, Iacocca's performance was mixed. He invested in everything, it seemed, except for desperately needed new cars to replace the K-cars. In the long view, his best move may have been acquiring AMC/Jeep from Renault, overshadowing strange forays with Maserati (DeTomaso-owned at the time) and Lamborghini, and numerous non-automotive ventures. Jeep, at least, proved a fruitful acquisition, a key lure in attracting Daimler-Benz as a suitor.
But what do the 18- to 34-year-olds care? They're the prime target market for every consumer goods company in America and their response to the ads runs along the lines of "Lee who? Oh, him." At least this is the case among my sons and their peers, my own impromptu focus group in this age class.
So what is the point of reaching out to Iacocca? A few headlines at the beginning of the program, in which Chrysler (as Ford is also doing) strives to catch up to General Motors' employee pricing plan? Are Chrysler marketers just caught up in a Detroit-centric view of the world in which what could be an effective and fun local ad campaign has gotten blown up into a national effort?
Or is it that Detroiters, watching GM today, are reminded repeatedly of those bad old days at Chrysler, such that Iacocca suddenly seems relevant again? When might the leaders at GM step up and offer even a symbolic sacrifice of their own salaries and bonusesas Iacocca and his team didbefore asking the employees in the factories to share the load?
GM keeps saying it has its back against the wall and is taking measures to turn things around, but the most obvious news this generates takes the form of new incentives to move the metal over the curb. While playing catch-up to counter GM's 46.9 percent sales bump in June, maybe Chryslerites couldn't help themselves and just had to do something that says to their crosstown peers, "Been there, done that."
Or perhaps I underestimate the relevance of Jason Alexander. I just thought he was the closest 21st century analog to Joe Garagiola, featured in the old "Buy a car, get a check" Chrysler campaign. Maybe, instead, these new TV commercials are intended, like the Seinfeld show, to be about nothing.