NO. 1 FEVER

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Executives at General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division did the wrong thing in cooking its 1998 sales numbers. GM did the right thing in admitting Cadillac had faked the data to show it stayed ahead of Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln as the year's No. 1 selling luxury marque.

It's remarkable someone at Cadillac was willing to risk the equity of the brand to retain short-term bragging rights about sales leadership. GM has made a big show of embracing brand marketing; the message apparently hasn't gotten through to those in charge of counting cars.

Of course, the fever to be No. 1 infects more than auto marketers. It can be particularly virulent in the media business. Among magazines, for example, the pressure to boast of ad page gains and leadership is immense, and publishers sometimes sacrifice profits and quality to be able to tout being at the top of a field.

In the luxury car business, bragging over No. 1 status is becoming less relevant in Detroit. The category increasingly is dominated by foreign brands. For the first time, a foreign marque could take the luxury sales crown this year: Top sellers year to date are Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Cadillac and BMW, with Lincoln in the rear.

It's not certain 1999 car buyers cared whether the 1998 sales winner was Lincoln or Cadillac. What's more certain is that Cadillac damaged its image and reputation by its foolish action. GM has promised disciplinary action will be taken. Any corporate introspection should extend beyond the number-twisters themselves to more senior managers as well. They, after all, are responsible for the No. 1-or-bust climate that made fudging the facts seem to someone just another tool in the marketplace war. Sales and marketing executives elsewhere would be wise to ponder whether they are stoking the same kind of thinking in

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