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Heard Through The Grapevine

by Bob Hagin

February 12, 2001

Sometimes events in the auto world affect a great number of people and sometimes they affect just a few. Here's a couple of recent happenings; one that had an impact on a single individual, a couple that involve huge populations and one that involves just you as a TV viewer:

TWISTING THE TIGER'S TAIL - You don't have to be a golf fan to know that Tiger Woods is one the hottest sports personalities currently promoting products on TV. Commercials of Woods teeing-off, putting and striding across the fairway are prime-time fodder for TV viewers. Buick is currently one of the products Woods endorses and it recently got him into trouble when he virtually crossed a picket line thrown up by the Screen Actor's Guild. SAG is in an ongoing battle with various organizations over residual TV rights for members and the union said no more commercials until it's settled. But Woods participated in a Buick "shoot" in Canada while the strike was still in place and got called on the carpet by a SAG trial board. He was fined $100,000 for the infraction. Half of the amount was suspended when he said he was sorry and promised to not do it again but the fine is lunch money for Woods. His five-year contract with Nike apparel is for $10 million.

CLINTON SAYS LET FRINK OUT OF CLINK - On the other hand, you've probably never heard of Antoinette Frink, the recent recipient of a clemency order from outgoing president Bill Clinton. Frink was a Special Education teacher-turned auto sales person who then became a Chevrolet- Cadillac dealer in Ohio as part of GM's program to get minorities into dealer ownerships. In '87, Frink was contacted by a man referred to her by her daughter Claudia for a business deal. The man introduced himself as a broker bringing vehicles up from Florida and needed to have them retitled in Ohio, his base of operation. Actually he was changing the titles for drug dealers and when one of them was "busted" in Georgia with a truckload of cocaine, Frink was accused of conspiracy. Despite the flimsy case presented by government prosecutors, Frink was sentenced to over 15 years in prison, a term that was longer than any of the actual drug dealers who were involved. Her case became the cause celeb for the auto dealer industry but she nonetheless served over 11 years in a federal prison until Clinton sprung her. Justice is indeed blind.

SPOILS OF OLDSMOBILE DEMISE - The slow death of Oldsmobile is having fallout in a multitude of areas. The first is the terrible hit taken by Olds dealers who saw the worth of their dealerships go into freefall when the bad news was broadcast over national TV by General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner early in December last year. Many had recently invested heavily to meet upgraded standards set by GM policy makers. Now those that are stand-alone dealers selling only Oldsmobiles are facing an uncertain future. Other victims of the assassination include the various ongoing promotional events that are underwritten by Oldsmobile. The company is slated to spend $300 million on "measured media" events this year and they include the "Oldsmobile Scramble," an amateur golf tourney that attracts over 100,000 golfers every year from hundreds of communities. Another is the Aurora-engine program that is the powerplant of choice for the Indy Racing League Indycar races that include the Indy 500. The spectacular Olds "Concept Cars" that are touring international auto shows will have a simple metamorphosis. Someone will replace their Oldsmobile logos with those of Saturn, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick or Cadillac.

DETROIT LOSING ITS EDGE - Michigan is the automotive center of the U.S. - at least for now. As the American auto manufacturing world consolidated in the '20s, Detroit and its environs became the center of this "smokestack" industry due to its access to raw materials, rail and water transportation and a pool of semi-skilled labor. But in recent years, other states and even other countries have been siphoning off a lot of Detroit's automotive growth. The reason behind the growth in other regions is simple: it costs less to assemble vehicles in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and Georgia than it does in Michigan. The plants are, for the most part, not unionized and those Southern communities offer enormous tax breaks to lure companies like Saturn, Nissan, Toyota and Honda to establish new plants there. The development of American auto plants in Mexico and Canada has more than doubled in the past decade. The title of "Motown USA" may soon be up for grabs.

LOOK FOR LONGER TV PROMOS - So maybe you're one of those TV viewers who go to the fridge to get a snack when those Tiger Woods Buick ads come on, thinking that 30 seconds is just enough time to get there and back. But times are changing in the world of TV advertising and the length of those "commercials" may stretch into five to 30 minutes. They will morph into what are known as "infomercials" that give a more descriptive explanation of the product promoted than can be crammed into a half-minute. They have an added attraction to the company in that they invite viewer participation via a call-in phone number. The infomercials format has to not only initially grab viewers like any commercial, but has to entertain them to keep them from "surfing' the channels for something more interesting. The usual and most successful medium to get these long-winded promotions to us viewers is localized cable companies like the Discovery Channel and CNBC, where air time is less expensive. You won't see Tiger on the low-buck Buick infomercials on cable, but they might find a spot for his caddy.

The goings-on of people in the car business isn't as exciting as "Entertainment Tonight" but they seem to have more of an effect on our everyday lives.