Which is more important, real achievement or celebrity?

At the North American International Auto Show here in Detroit, celebrity is garnering an inordinate amount of attention, just like in real life.

Nothing wrong with adding a little celebrity hamburger helper to hawk products, but this year, the celebs are starting to look more like the main course, with product on the side.

General Motors can be forgiven for starting the minor-celeb fest on Saturday night for a special event, but the trend continued into the regular media day program on Sunday.

Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda spent about 30% of the auto maker’s precious time slot for introducing its crucial new minivan awkwardly making a chocolate layer cake with celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

The new minivan is Chrysler’s “bread and butter” and those that can’t stand the heat (a jab at Ford, which is quitting the minivan segment and General Motors, which is expected to bail out as well) should get out of the kitchen, appears to be the underlying message.

Audi flew in pop star (and supermodel Heidi Klum husband) Seal to sing his early 1990s hit “Crazy” to introduce its Q7 V12 TDI Concept.

Immediately afterwards, DaimlerChrysler added “Dancing with the Stars” (and football legend) Emmitt Smith and his dancing partner Cheryl Burke, to the introduction of its Ocean Drive Concept convertible.

Thankfully Ford stuck to a product-focused introduction, perhaps only because it can’t currently afford the 6-figure appearance fees even B- and C-listers command.

Critics here in the pressroom complain auto makers are dumb to allow minor celebrities to upstage their crucial new products.

But in an age when Britney Spears frequently is the most searched for name on the Internet and a band of bratty high-school cheerleaders in Texas are getting more attention on the cable news networks than the impact of the changing of the guard in Congress, auto makers simply are being practical.

It may be insulting to the designers, engineers and everyone else involved with the creative process that their work doesn’t mean much if it is not validated by an appearance with Carmen Electra. But in a world that now values celebrity far more than achievement, that is the price that must be paid, and auto makers know it.

As one of my colleagues aptly points out: “There are millions of people in America who probably don’t know Buick still even exists. If Carmen Electra calls it to their attention, that’s real progress.”

That certainly is an accomplishment. But please, let’s not call it progress.

dwinter@wardsauto.com