How the coronavirus brought auto marketing blitzes to a halt

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Tucson, Arizona — When the last Honda CR-V Hybrid test vehicle was loaded on a car trailer here Friday, the auto industry’s media marketing machine packed up with it.

In an unprecedented seven-day period, automakers in the U.S. market — with one significant exception — shut down their media rollouts of new models to the public to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Like Hollywood’s postponement of new film releases, the delay will stack up introduction of new models and disrupt marketing plans.

Disruption caused by the outbreak has disrupted the marketing rollouts of vehicles like the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer.

Only Tesla bucked the industry trend as CEO Elon Musk downplayed the outbreak as the company’s compact SUV, the Model Y, began delivery to customers. Unlike other carmakers, however, Tesla does not invest in big, media-focused marketing campaigns, so its contrarian view did not disrupt the company’s product plans.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have made the decision to cancel the Trailblazer drive program for now,” read the General Motors Co. email to the automotive press just four days before the Chevy Trailblazer subcompact SUV’s March 9-14 media test program in Phoenix. GM cited concerns for safety after reviewing recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Cancellation of a California media rollout for the Cadillac CT4 and CT5 luxury sedans quickly followed. Then another big blow the following Monday: the postponement of Cadillac’s first all-electric vehicle, the Lyriq SUV — a product GM hopes will redefine its luxury brand for years to come.

Media reveals and test programs are part of carefully choreographedrollouts to maximize publicity for products that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring to market.

“They are an important way to get key media to understand the products in a short period of time, then write about them,” says veteran auto analyst Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. “That helps customers learn about the car as they arrive at dealerships.”

GM’s cancellations came at the start of a busy spring of introductions, and sent ripples through the industry. An automaker of GM’s size forced other automakers to reassess their own programs.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk was unconcerned, tweeting he same day: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.”

Coincidentally, GM’s action came just days after the producers of the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” delayed its release date from Easter weekend (April 10) to Nov. 25 for fear the film’s box office returns would be severely impacted by the virus.

“The James Bond movie is a metaphor for auto reveals. Movies are released at a specific time for maximum audience exposure,” said Brauer. “You don’t want them all jammed together or they will be stepping on each other.”

That reality was a key factor as Ford, Hyundai and Porsche all pushed forward with their programs the week of March 16-21. But the pressure continued to mount.

On March 10 the New York Auto Show, one of North America’s largest exhibitions with numerous product reveals and over 1 million attendees, threw in the towel.

 “For 120 years, ‘the show must go on’ has been heavily embedded in our DNA, and while the decision to move the show dates didn’t come easy, our top priority remains with the health and well-being of all those involved,” said show organizer Mark Schienberg in announcing the show’s first postponement since World War II.

Like “No Time to Die,” it got a new date: Aug. 28 to Sept. 6. Auto products wouldn’t be so lucky.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, members of the media arrived in Tucson for Honda’s CR-V Hybrid program. Unlike other automakers, Honda had not banned executive travel in the U.S., and its program — with just 50 media over two days — would be a compact affair.

It would also be the last for a while.

Friday the 13th opened with Ford pulling the plug on its March 17-18 Bronco plans — a painful step given the importance in spearheading the Blue Oval’s shift from cars to SUVs. The move came after Washington banned European travel and COVID-19 cases continued to rise. “We concluded the issue has taken on a different dimension,” said a Ford representative.

With its German-based executives banned from travel to the States, Porsche followed suit — canceling its March 22 California media test program for its new 911 Turbo S.

Only Tesla remained defiant as Musk reportedly expanded on his March 6 coronavirus tweet with a March 13 email to employees. According to a copy of the email leaked to Buzzfeed, Musk told employees the evidence “suggests that (COVID-19) is not within the top 100 health risks in the United States.”

Tesla’s chief followed up with another email, reported by the LA Times, on March 16 saying that: “My frank opinion is that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” adding that COVID-19 cases “will not exceed 0.1% of the population.”

Model Y deliveries began over the weekend — ahead of schedule.

By week’s end, it was clear Honda would be the last media event until May. In a Super Bowl ad back on Feb. 2, GM announced its electric Hummer SUV would debut May 20.

In perhaps a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, the event is still on.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.