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Ad dollars chase the auto shows

With consumer attendance to auto industry events like the North American International Auto Show growing every year, the flashy industry showcases are becoming a big marketing platform for automakers.
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Auto shows like the North American International Auto Show, which opened Sunday in Detroit, were once of interest mainly to die-hard car buffs and gear-heads. With consumer attendance growing every year, the flashy industry showcases are becoming a big marketing platform for automakers as they launch new models almost year-round.

JAY LENO INTRODUCED the ultra-luxury Maybach brand for at the Detroit auto show Monday. The “Tonight Show” host, a well-known car lover, played pitchman for the new $350,000 car, a state-of-the-art car that features a DVD system and champagne glass storage.

Pop singer is scheduled to perform at a black-tie event at the Detroit show on Friday, essentially kicking off of her multi-year, multi-media marketing deal with DaimlerChrysler.

But the impact of the Detroit auto show isn’t just at the conference hall.

North America rolled out the TV ad blitz for its new sport-utility vehicle, the , on Sunday. The launch of the estimated $15 campaign was strategically timed for the opening weekend of both the Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows, according to Tim Mahoney, general manager of marketing for Porsche North America.

The $55,900 SUV goes on sale in March.

Almost 60 new cars, trucks and “concept” vehicles will be shown in Detroit when it opens to the public on Saturday. Mainstream consumer attendance at the major U.S. auto shows in Detroit, New York and Los Angeles has been building in the last decade as more people visit the auto shows not only to see the far out future concepts, but to look at new models that will soon be in dealer showrooms. Last year, more than 750,000 people attended the Detroit show in 2002, the largest auto industry event in the U.S., a 60 percent increase over the last 10 years, according to Ryan Hamlin, general manager of , the official online sponsor of the Detroit auto show. Last year more than 5 million people visited MSN’s section dedicated to the Detroit event.

“For consumers, it’s a chance to preview cars in a less intrusive way than when they go into a dealership,” said Hamlin.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

At the same time, fragmentation of the media has lessened the impact of a typical TV ad campaign, making the industry events a more important way for the car manufacturers to get vehicles in front of potential customers.

Meanwhile the car manufacturers have begun rushing new models to showrooms almost as soon as they leave the production line, instead of holding them for the typical fall sales season. The auto shows help build brand awareness and prelaunch buzz before the new vehicles hit showrooms, industry watchers say.

“The auto shows are increasingly used as a place to roll out product and to introduce themes and strategies,” said Paul Eisenstein, publisher of , an auto review and news site. “They are critical in terms of getting the message out to a mass audience.”

Porsche has increased its investment in auto shows and event marketing over the last three years, said Mahoney.

“The auto shows are absolutely becoming more important in our marketing,” said Porsche’s Mahoney. “As media becomes more fractured, there’s no replacement for getting the vehicle in front of the consumer.”

DaimlerChrysler got a lot of press attention for the Dodge Magnum, a production ready concept car which is expected in dealer showrooms next year, and the new Chrysler Pacifica model, an upscale mix between a station wagon, SUV and sedan.

Within the next 2 weeks, Chrysler launches its new branding campaign starring Dion.

“For all the car companies the auto show is important for buzz building,” said Suraya DaSanta, a Chrysler spokeswoman.

Some analysts don’t see a sales boost from all the hype over the auto spectacles.

“The auto shows don’t necessarily prompt sales nationally,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst for Global Insight Inc., an auto industry research firm in Boston. “Consumer confidence is everything when it comes to sales.”