What a sweet guy that Lee Iacocca is. Having merely become a multimillionaire, a culture hero and a giver of august advice - and all because we taxpayers guaranteed a paltry $1.5 billion in loans for his otherwise-doomed Chrysler Corp. - Lee now wants us to know he appreciates the effort.
"You were there for us," says a typical ad from the company's new campaign, "now we perform for you."Well, golly gee. Isn't that terrific of Lee? I can think of lots of super ways for him to show his sincere appreciation, can't you? How about a nice new convertible for your next birthday? Or maybe, say, a minivan for Christmas?
Which do you think it will be? Alas, neither, as it turns out, because as we read further, we discover that all we're going to get is a rebate. And not, of course, on the vehicles that Chrysler can sell without such concessions, such as minivans and four-door Jeep Cherokees. In fact, it's just possible that the actual rebates being offered may seem like the same tired old automotive story, under a new self-serving headline.
How dumb does Detroit think we are?
Very dumb, if we are to judge by the annual rash of misleading ads, of which the Chrysler now-here's-a-present-for-you effort is merely a particularly egregious example.
The latest phony-baloney routine concerns seemingly amazing interest-rate bargains. Chrysler has offered what appears to be the ultimate: zero-percent interest - on two-year loans. Which is absolutely terrific provided (a) you want to pay the price they're asking, and (b) you're willing and able to pay it off over two years. I'm sure a swell fellow like Lee couldn't possibly have been aware of this, but very few customers fit that profile.
Most of us take longer to pay off our car loans at today's stratospheric prices. And when you get out as far as the increasingly popular five-year loans, Chrysler's rates are actually higher than General Motors' or Ford's - though there may be further finagling hourly.
The point is that all these apparent concessions by all three companies are essentially eyewash. It's Iacoccanomics - aggressively call it something other than what it really is, and maybe many people will be fooled. (Subsidy? What subsidy?)
So let's do what Detroit refuses to do and call all these "rebates" and "low interest rates" by their correct name. They are (gasp!) price cuts.
Isn't that shocking? Well, you can see why no self-respecting auto firm would want to come right out and say that, can't you? I mean, it would be like admitting that they couldn't sell the car at the price they were asking and had to come down. Wouldn't that be just too embarrassing for words?
Why, if a Detroit giant honestly described its pricing policy, people might expect it to keep those prices down. And we certainly wouldn't want that, would we?
The moral, unfortunately, is a serious one. For all its ostensible efforts to get its act together, to produce more efficient, salable and reliable cars, Detroit has still not learned to play fair with its customers. And it has thus missed an opportunity that has fallen into its lap over the past four years as the value of the dollar has been driven down, making American cars relatively much cheaper to produce.
Akio Morita, the brilliant chairman of Sony, told me he was stunned by the failure of Detroit's automakers to seize this opportunity to rebuild a much greater share of the U.S. auto market. Instead, he said, by keeping prices too high they had fattened short-term profits but lost long-term possibilities.
Now the motor moguls are compounding the felony by refusing openly to reduce prices. Years ago the excuse in Detroit was that if list prices were lowered, they might be frozen there by government wage-price controls. No such threat exists today. If the American auto industry is ever truly to regain its former eminence, it might start by rebating a little more truth and having a higher interest rate in bottom-line customer arithmetic. Then we'll really be there for you, Lee.