The 81-year-old retired auto executive, who led Chrysler Corp.'s comeback from near-bankruptcy in the early 1980s, will star in a $75 million campaign to tout Chrysler's "Employee Pricing Plus," a response to GM's popular "Employee Discount for Everyone" program.
The Iacocca ad campaign was to be announced yesterday. As of last evening, a final deal had not been signed, but Chrysler officials said they were negotiating with Iacocca and hoped to have all the details worked out by today.
The bones of the deal would include an initial payment to the Iacocca Foundation and a pledge to donate $1 for each car and truck the Chrysler Group sells from July 1 to the end of this year. Chrysler said the money Iacocca earns from appearing in the ads will go to diabetes research, a cause that has been close to his heart since his wife died in 1983.
In the first half of the year, Chrysler sold nearly 1.3 million vehicles.
Chrysler Group, a unit of Germany's DaimlerChrysler AG, said it is spending about 30 percent more on this campaign than it normally would to close out a model year. The Iacocca Foundation is seeking to raise $11 million for diabetes research.
Perhaps more important is whether Iacocca will resonate with younger consumers, who may not remember his old ads, his best-selling Iacocca: An Autobiography, and the excitement that once surrounded the man many thought could run for president.
Alan Kalter, who heads the Doner ad firm, said bringing back Iacocca in ads could be a stroke of genius that could touch both young and old.
"If done humorously, it could really stand out," Kalter said. "I think it's a smart idea."
Iacocca burst onto the automotive scene in 1964 when, as head of the Ford Division at Ford Motor Co., he championed introduction of the Mustang, the first car aimed at the youth market. It went on to become one of the most popular and enduring American cars.
Fired by Henry Ford
By 1970, he was president of the Dearborn, Mich., automaker, but he was fired in 1978 by Henry Ford II, who later said, "Sometimes you just don't like somebody."
Iacocca joined Chrysler in 1979.
The new ads pay homage to his storied past. In one, a limousine driver recognizes Iacocca and asks if he is the guy who used to say, "If you can find a better car, buy it." Iacocca's reply: "Still am."
Jason Vines, Chrysler Group's vice president for public relations, said Iacocca is in good health and brings a lot of his characteristic energy to the spots. "He doesn't look a day over 70."
GM, the world's largest automaker, introduced the employee-discount promotion in June, after steep sales declines in May. The company's promotion and its corresponding ad campaign featuring GM employees has been credited with boosting sales and reinvigorating the brands - at least in June.
After its notable success, analysts and other industry observers speculated that GM would have to extend the program and its cross-town rivals would have to match it. On Tuesday, GM extended the program until Aug. 1. Ford Motor Co. matched it with the Ford Family Plan, offering employee pricing on nearly all 2005 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models to U.S. customers.
As of yesterday, Chrysler officially matched the GM program with what it calls "Employee Pricing Plus." Under that promotion, customers will be able to get the Chrysler employee discounts on most 2005 Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge models through Aug. 1.
The automaker is hoping the accompanying ad campaign will trump its larger competitor's ads by using an automotive icon and humor.
'A new spin'
"When there's a wave this big, it's better to ride it than fight it," said George Murphy, Chrysler's senior vice president of global marketing. "The challenge was that the employee discount program is yesterday's news. How do you put a new spin on it that's memorable?"
Iacocca isn't exactly a popular celebrity in the minds of today's young car buyers. But during his time, he was one of the most popular business figures in the world, like the Donald Trump of today's generation. The originator of the Mustang, Iacocca worked his way up from an engineering trainee at Ford to head up Chrysler.
He and his accompanying common-sense tagline have worked magic for Chrysler in the past. In the earlier 1980s, during particularly hard times for the then near-bankrupt Chrysler Corp., the venerable auto executive became the first head of an automotive company to appear in national TV ads.
Those ads, which became one of the most successful and effective corporate image-repairing campaigns, were praised for increasing overall confidence in the automaker among employees, customers and investors. Iacocca was credited not only with persuading Congress to bail Chrysler out and avert bankruptcy, but also with becoming one of the most effective spokesmen in U.S. history.
This time around, Iacocca will co-star with actor Jason Alexander, who is best known for playing George Costanza, the short, bald, unlucky best friend of the title character in the long-running sitcom Seinfeld.