By Christie Nicholson
Article published in The Columbia Journalist on March 18, 2006.
Some men say they are more likely to check out a car if an attractive woman stands next to it. But times have changed, and presenters at the auto show are flaunting their car smarts, not their legs.
- – -
Bonnie Suder, a tall, thin blonde, stands in front of the Mazda B-series truck dressed in a conservative pantsuit, nothing like the glamorous evening gown she used to wear at the auto show.
“Back in those days we looked beautiful and didn’t say a word,” said Suder, 63, referring to the time when she started working at the show, 15 years ago. “Now I talk about pistons and cams. I’m a mechanic nut.”
The women who present the cars at New York’s automotive show have changed. No longer are they tarted up, fitted with miniskirts and sexy gowns. Today the women who stand on the spinning turntables beside showcased cars are wearing suits. And they know a lot about engines. While this change pleases the increasing number of female buyers who don’t care about pretty faces, male buyers aren’t as happy. They say they miss the days of “eye candy” and “flirtatious fun” at the auto show.
Jay Quillen and Ray VanHine have been coming to the show for 17 years and say they are stunned by how conservative the women have become.
“We nearly mistook two of them for men because of their suits,” said VanHine. “It’s not as easy to be attracted to the business attire. Well, I guess it depends on how many beers you’ve had.”
In 2001 nearly half of all SUV sales – 47 percent – were to women. In 2002 women influenced 80 percent of all purchasing decisions, according to a report by CNW Marketing Research. Female buyers have become much more critical than male buyers, auto show presenters say.
“Women are asking more of the questions,” says Rochelle Reeves, a presenter for Lincoln Mercury. “In a couple, they are making the buying decisions.”
Nearly all presenters are actors, employed by talent agencies. To ensure they meet the needs of discerning female buyers they are given up to three weeks of intensive training. They are tested on engine parts, marketing campaigns, and demographics. The presenters also test drive each car, sometimes through high-speed obstacle courses.
Monique Impagliazzio, 24, presents the Toyota Prius and is dressed in cargo pants and work boots. She spends a lot of time talking about gas mileage, resale values and foot-pound of torque. She’s proud she can quickly explain the difference between horsepower and torque to customers. “Torque gets you going, horsepower keeps you going,” she says.
While female customers have welcomed the change to more knowledgeable presenters who dress more conservatively, some men say beautiful women and beautiful cars ought to go together.
When the Dodge Rampage’s shinning front turns to face 24-year old Mike Drimones, his mouth drops and his eyes widen. “Look at that grill,” he says referring to the front of the Rampage. But from the look on his face he could just as easily been referring to a “girl.”
Do some men have the same reaction to a car that they have to a woman?
“Yeah, I guess I do,” Drimones said. “I feel the same if I see a beautiful car as I do when I see a beautiful girl.”
Others agree that an attractive woman will draw them to a car they would otherwise ignore. “I’m definitely drawn in by a hot woman,” said VanHine. “But for a [basic] car like a Kia or Hyundai, she’d have to be real hot.”
But many of the female visitors to the auto show say they don’t care how “hot” the presenter is, or even if it’s a female or male presenter.
“I want someone who is smart and respectably dressed,” said Farruch Ahsan, who is 41 and a mother of two. “Really, all I care about is reliability.”
Still the enduring question from men, as they slide up to the blonde presenter of the Dodge Challenger, remains: “Hey, so I have to know — do you come with the car?”