Glamour Dims as Hecklers Hit the Auto Show
Just a year ago, working as a product presenter at an auto show was a
pretty straightforward job. You stood next to a vehicle, you called it a
marvel of engineering, style and comfort and then you fielded softball
questions like, “What does this baby cost?”
But that was before the bailout. Now that the government has helped
General Motors and Chrysler stave off bankruptcy with billions of
dollars in loans, these companies are finding somewhat hostile crowds at
their exhibits. Which leads to scenes like the one on Friday at the New
York auto show, where a blond woman in a tight black dress stood on a
rotating platform and pitched the sporty Dodge Circuit, one of five
electric cars that Chrysler is developing.
Donald Han, an accountant from Queens, sounded unmoved. “Why now?” he
asked the woman, rather curtly, once she had finished her patter. “How
come you’ve got to nearly go bankrupt before you come out with a car
Long a glamorous showcase for carmakers, auto shows have lately become a
place for buyers and gawkers to vent. Few of the attendees at the Javits
Center, where the New York show runs until Sunday, will ever encounter a
top executive from G.M. or Chrysler. But all of them get within heckling
range of the presenters and for some, that is good enough.
It does not seem to matter that these women — they are nearly all women,
most of them young and attractive — work part time for marketing firms
and talent agencies that have contracts to run the exhibits. Many know
little about the car companies they are working for beyond the scripts
they have memorized.
“I try to explain that we’re not involved in corporate decisions, so
complaining to us doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” said Kerri Moss,
standing on a large turntable next to a Jeep 4X4 Laredo, a Chrysler
product. Recently laid off from her job as a teacher, she is trying to
earn some money on the car show circuit, which runs from September to
May. “And if that doesn’t work, I tell them we’re doing the best we can.”
Often, that does not work either. One G.M. presenter said a woman told
her the company was responsible for the death of American soldiers in
Iraq. The logic went like this: if G.M. made more fuel-efficient cars,
the country would not need so much oil, and if the country did not need
oil, United States troops would never have invaded.
“I didn’t say anything,” recalled the presenter, who like many others
here declined to give her name because she is not supposed to speak to
the news media. “What can you possibly say? ‘Thanks?’ ”
Even if they ignore the snide comments and occasional jeers, presenting
for an ailing car company just is not as fun as working for one that is
thriving. The G.M. and Chrysler spaces are smaller and less flashy than
they were a year ago.
The Jeep exhibit used to have a 54-foot-wide waterfall that continuously
dropped 1,000 gallons of water and was programmed, like an ink jet
printer, to spell out brand names and logos in the falling streams. Not
And for the first time, some G.M. presenters are wearing the same
outfits they wore last year.
“We used to get a new one every season,” said Christine Alt Parry,
during a break from her duties beside a black 2010 GMC Terrain, wearing
the flower-pattern dark blazer and black slacks she wore a year ago. “I
think they’re trying to save some money.”
Downstairs at the Kia exhibit, meanwhile, it is party time. A D.J. is
mixing oom-chick-oom-chick club tracks on an Apple laptop, beside huge
LED screens that spell out phrases like “Schwing!” and “Kia Sips Gas.”
The men are wearing new Hugo Boss suits, with dark-purple hankies, and
the women are wearing designer dresses bought recently at the Beverly
Center in Los Angeles.
On Friday, Subaru handed out flutes of Brut Cuvee Champagne to visiting
Finnish car dealers. And they are preening over at the Hyundai space,
where the staff is decked out in new Armani jackets, Cole Haan sweaters
and a few other items picked up at Nordstrom.
“I haven’t seen anyone who looks as sharp as we do,” said Mark Laffrey,
the wardrobe consultant.
The exhibit for Ford, a company in better financial shape than its
crosstown rivals in Detroit, is huge and dominated by an atmosphere that
could be described as we-didn’t-take-your-money festive. There are slot
car races, a magician doing card tricks, and the crew of MTV’s “Pimp My
Ride” upgrading a car in a cordoned-off section called Mustang Alley,
which has a spring-break vibe.
“We’re the bad boys of the auto show!” yells a man who calls himself
Flames, one of the ride-pimpers, as he gets to work.
Not that any of these companies are making huge sums of money. But
unlike G.M. and Chrysler, they do not need to project an air of
austerity and seriousness.
So is this new image winning over potential buyers? Well, there are
people who say they would indeed buy from either company. But many
attendees echoed the sentiments of Mark Lee, who was photographing his
daughter next to the gleaming rims of a 6,000-pound Hummer. “Absolutely
not,” he said when asked if he was tempted.
On the other side of the hall, an electrician, Kurt Moore of Pleasant
Valley, N.Y., sat in a Toyota Highlander and explained why he was not
going to buy American anytime soon.
“You know how they say, ‘Never buy a car made on a Monday or a Friday?’
” he said, getting comfortable in the passenger seat. “It’s because the
people building the cars aren’t focused on the job. Well, how well do
you think they’re focused today, with all this talk about how they’re
going to lose their jobs?”
The G.M. and Chrysler presenters have heard questions like that, and
dozens of variations of it, in the last couple months.
“We get a lot of, ‘You’re going out of business,’ ‘You guys are going
bankrupt,’ ” said Shannon Melahn, part of the Chrysler presenting team.
She shrugged and added, “We just smile.”