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.