Chrysler defends Lingerie Bowl, calls it legitimate athletic contest

By MARY CONNELLY | Automotive News

DETROIT — Scrambling to avoid being tackled for a big marketing loss, the coaching staff at the Chrysler group is changing its game plan.

Chrysler executives insist that the 2004 Lingerie Bowl is a legitimate athletic contest, not a soft-core ballet of scantily clad beauties trying to knock each other out of their halter tops.

“They have been training two times a week for the past several months,” Julie Roehm, the Chrysler group’s director of marketing communications, says of the contestants. “They’ve got real coaches.”

Dodge is the sponsor of the Lingerie Bowl, in which models will play tackle football on pay-per-view cable TV during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl on Feb. 1.

In video clips on the event’s Web site, the players suggest that “clothes are going to be flying” during the game, and that “the worry is losing our tops.”

But Dodge’s sponsorship – which comes soon after a Dodge ad campaign called sexually suggestive and in poor taste – has been criticized. Last week, the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group, began protesting the event.

Dodge and Horizon Productions Inc., the Lingerie Bowl’s producer, are working hard to tone down the game’s racy image.

The players “were chosen based on athletic ability, although they obviously were already beautiful people,” Roehm said last week. “What (Horizon) presented to us is that it is an opportunity to show that women can play the game and learn the game.”

The game may be frivolous, but the marketing implications are not. The Lingerie Bowl will be played just weeks before the Chrysler group begins selling updated versions of the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan, minivans aimed squarely at soccer moms and the family-values crowd.

The growing controversy over the Lingerie Bowl underscores the challenge facing Dodge marketers. They are trying to reach both minivan moms and men who desire Hemi-powered Durango and Ram trucks.

Rebecca Harris, a Horizon spokeswoman, says that Horizon and Dodge have had “a lot of conversations about how we can market this so that all aspects of the event can be highlighted, including the athletic aspect.”

“The girls have been studying playbooks since the summer and have been practicing twice a week,” Harris says.

The players will wear “sports bra-type tops with lace over them and short shorts with lace over them as well,” Harris says. “They will be wearing helmets, shoulder pads and kneepads.”

The game uniforms have not been revised, Harris says. But in announcing the Lingerie Bowl in June the two teams were identified by pink or blue lace-trimmed lingerie, and the players’ statements on video clips suggest the models anticipated wearing garments that are easily torn.

“Those were for an initial photo shoot,” Harris says of the outfits.

Dieter Zetsche, Chrysler group CEO, and Joe Eberhardt, the company’s marketing chief, were caught off guard when Dodge signed to sponsor the Lingerie Bowl.

“It is not about refusing responsibility. I am responsible,” said Zetsche at a press event Monday, Dec. 8. “But neither myself nor Joe (Eberhardt) were involved.”

Roehm says she is responsible for the Dodge Lingerie Bowl sponsorship.

Roehm says she presented the Lingerie Bowl to George Murphy, senior vice president of global brand marketing, the way the event was presented by Horizon Productions.

Asked who signed off on the event, Roehm says, “I did. I also reviewed it with George.”

Proceeds from the event will benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Genevieve Wood, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, says, “Chrysler is selling sex, which is behavior that causes the majority of HIV and AIDS cases in America. Then they are trying to hide behind that by donating the money to an AIDS foundation.”