Lee Iacocca'scommercial blitzes during the 1980s made him an instant celebrity.
The former chairman capped each message with his famous tag line, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
That was a bold challenge, but what did he have to lose? The perennial third place finisher in U.S. sales was struggling, and Iacocca hoped his personal appeal would at least get car buyers thinking about.
Jason Vines, Chrysler Group's public relations chief, with a flair for the theatrical, approached Iacocca last fall to dust off the “better car” commercials, and he agreed – for a price: $1 for each car sold over 14 months, matched by the Chrysler Foundation.
Iacocca estimates that will come close to $5 million, but he is not personally pocketing a dime.
Iacocca hawked Chryslers with rapper Snoop Dogg in recent commercials.
Instead, all of the proceeds will go to the Iacocca Foundation for Diabetes Research toward clinical trials of a new cure for diabetes, which Iacocca says has become an epidemic afflicting some 18 million Americans and is the nation's sixth leading cause of death.
“You used to get Type 2 – adult onset – diabetes when you hit 40, but now kids 10 or 15 are getting it,” he says. Obesity, too much sugar in their diets and lack of exercise are the culprits, he says. The trials will cost $11.5 million and continue over three years.
Type 1 is the most deadly form and killed Iacocca's first wife, Mary, at age 56 in 1983. During his 21-year drive, Iacocca has raised more than $20 million for the diabetes cause, including all of the royalties from his two best-selling books.
“Jason tried to get me to do a(Motor Co. Ltd.) commercial when he worked for them here in California years ago. I said 'Are you out of your mind? Me going out and touting a Japanese car?'” says Iacocca. “He talked me into doing those (recent commercials). They gave me 5 million bucks for my foundation or I wouldn't have done them.”
Iacocca cut four commercials: One with comedian Jason Alexander; another with a young girl actress who played his granddaughter; one with rapper Snoop Dogg and a fourth combining outtakes from the other three.
“They were quickie commercials, and I thought they were nuts with Snoop Dogg,” who appears in a golfing scene with Iacocca, in which he rattles off his unique hip-hop slang.
“I still don't know what he said to me,” Iacocca quips.
He is serious, though, about the clinical trials. “I believe we're close to a cure, and that would be unbelievable,” he says.
The drug involved permanently has reversed or cured white mice having Type 1 without using toxic drugs.
The challenge now is “to take our research that cured (diabetes) in mice and transfer that into a fix for humans, which is not a slam dunk because what they're using in mice may be too toxic,” Iacocca says. That's why we're doing the clinical trials. But nobody likes clinical trials because they're crapshoots, although the mouse model is very close.”