With all the depressing talk about the European economic crisis, political turmoil, overcapacity and the Chinese threat in the marketplace, a round of Prozac could have been necessary after the first 20 minutes of Tuesday’s Sergio Marchionne press conference here at the auto show.
But the mood lightened when a male European journalist asked whether female models were wearing enough clothing at the stands operated by the Fiat Group brands, including Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati.
The Italian-born president and CEO of Fiat didn’t hesitate to tackle this sensitive subject.
“The last time I checked, they were all fully clothed,” Marchionne says, then moving to put the questioner on the defensive. “You must be living in a very secluded environment where people wear long dresses and no high heels. I feel sorry for you.”
It was all in good fun, and the mostly-male room with about 50 journalists in attendance had a good chuckle. But the questioning reporter wasn’t ready to give up, asking whether dressing up women in tight clothing constitutes effective marketing.
Marchionne says it’s OK to “represent female beauty in anything we do, and I’m not embarrassed. I don’t think those women are doing anything that I find remotely attackable. I think most of the males in this room would agree with my view, not to mention the females, right?”
The executive describes the models as “a historical part” of auto shows. “I know there are differences in opinions as to whether these things work in other jurisdictions,” he says. “A similar arrangement in the U.S. market would probably be deemed to be a bit excessive, but that’s a U.S.-style reaction.”
Marchionne seemed to enjoy the exchange, so he continued his dialogue with the journalist.
“I can only assume the reason why you’ve asked the question is because the other car makers are jealous. And they are,” he says. “Every time I meet another CEO, they tell me I do a great job on that part of the business…even though they might knock on my cars.”
The journalist had one more probing question for Marchionne: Isn’t he afraid that gorgeous models will lead female buyers to believe the Fiat Group brands only want male customers?
“Not at all,” Marchionne says. “If you want me to, we can have male models next year – split the thing in half.”
At this point, female journalists in the room perk up and show their approval. “You don’t mind, thank you very much,” Marchionne says to them. “As long as we do it properly, I think we’re OK.”
Note to self: Remember to check the Italian booths at the 2014 Geneva auto show to see if there are any co-ed product reveals.