Last week, 60 journalists, editors and publishers from automotive and women's publications across the country blasted dealerships for being archaic, "good ol' boy" marketing institutions at a four-day, women-only press conference here sponsored by Chevrolet.
"This is the problem with the whole industry," said Nina Padgett, an automotive columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. "You've got the dealership and then you've got the corporate organization. If it were up to the corporation, there wouldn't be problems with women buying cars. But the problem comes with getting the corporate message down to the dealership. At the dealership level, things change a lot more slowly."
The conference, called "Women of Influence," was Chevrolet's latest-and most unusual-effort to target women and convince them that its vehicles are made with women in mind. Journalists had the chance to drive 1995 Chevy cars and trucks on mountain highways and prepared off-road courses, as well as sit in on seminars about GM's upcoming products and features.
Most journalists agreed the event was a valiant effort by Chevy to recognize the industry's reliance on women consumers, who spent $85 billion buying 50% of all new cars sold in the U.S. last year, according to market researcher J.D. Power & Associates.
But critics, mostly editors and journalists at regional, women's publications, insisted Chevy's message is being muted by dealerships that do not set aside media dollars for women's advertising and run ads only in the sports sections of newspapers.
Dealerships "have a targeted market and they're not taking advantage of it," said Sharon Silvas, publisher of a 32-page monthly, Colorado Woman News. The publication has 150,000 readers, but Ms. Silvas said she has to struggle to get 1 to 11/2 pages of automotive advertising, which is mostly ads for quick-service stations and auto parts stores.
But dealers take a different view. Advertising dollars are limited, they say, and best used in mass media: newspapers, radio and television. "We can't afford to segment," said Mike May, director of marketing for Ed Morse Automotive Group, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Magazine advertising we leave up to the factory-that's more for creating brand image," he said. "We're advertising on a retail level, to the buyer in the marketplace today. We advertise the virtues of our dealership and what we have to offer."
Chevrolet recognizes dealers' more "immediate" advertising need, but by not advertising to specific niches, they send the wrong message to consumers, said Chuck Hipp, regional marketing manager for Chevrolet.
To remedy the problem, Chevrolet last year introduced a test advertising incentive program for dealer ad associations enticing them to switch to the national agency Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich.
"It's a challenge," said Chuck Hipp, regional marketing manager for Chevrolet. "Dealers are trying to drive and stimulate traffic. We have 86 independent agencies out there representing 206 groups, and those agencies all have a different level of creative executions."
"The benefit of having the retail automotive division of Campbell-Ewald involved is they are very much in tune and sensitive to the needs of [women]," said Mr. Hipp.
Models like the Chevrolet Camaro, Cavalier and Geo are hot sellers among women, according to Andrea Wells, VP-account supervisor at Campbell-Ewald. To appeal to them, Chevy runs corporate ads in national epicurean, lifestyle and fitness magazines as well as popular women TV shows like "Roseanne."
But getting dealers to devote as much energy to this market could take time, Ms. Wells added.
"There's not much we can do [to convince dealers to advertise to women] other than emphasize `Genuine Chevrolet,'*" she said.
"That's not just a slogan, it's a whole way of life that people down to dealers have to embrace."