Leo-Arthur Kelmenson, 84, Iacocca’s advertising wizard
NEW YORK - Leo-Arthur Kelmenson, an advertising executive who helped Lee Iacocca save Chrysler Corp. and conceived the TV ad campaign that made Iacocca the most famous car salesman in the world, died Aug. 30 at his home on Long Island, in Remsenburg. He was 84.
He had been ill for several years.
Mr. Kelmenson and Iacocca became friends during Iacocca’s long career as an executive at
And not long after Iacocca was fired as president of Ford in a dispute with the company chairman, Henry Ford II, Mr. Kelmenson stunned the advertising world by announcing in 1979 that Kenyon & Eckhardt would abandon its long relationship with Ford - and the $75 million a year in business it represented - to become the exclusive advertising agency of Chrysler Corp. Iacocca was then serving as president of Chrysler for a salary of $1 a year because the company was nearly bankrupt.
“There was a certain amount of risk involved,’’ said Ronald DeLuca, then the executive vice president of Kenyon & Eckhardt. “The risk was that our company would go down the drain.’’
Chrysler was not always paying its bills. And government approval of the loan guarantees that later stabilized the company was then far from certain.
“But Leo and the rest of us believed in Iacocca,’’ DeLuca said, “and it turned out to be a good deal.’’
Mr. Kelmenson’s first project was a TV ad campaign - “Would America be better off without Chrysler?’’ - urging approval of a $1.5 billion federal loan guarantee package. The package was authorized in 1980.
But the marketing insight that got people buying Chrysler’s cars again was Kelmenson’s idea to put Iacocca in front of the camera and let him talk. Mr. Kelmenson’s advertising firm produced a series of ads in the 1980s featuring the likable Iacocca, his aviator glasses set firm on the bridge of an indomitable nose, walking the factory floor, finger-wagging and challenging Americans with plainspoken lines like, “If you can find a better car, buy it.’’
By most accounts, the ads not only made Iacocca a household avatar of the American comeback, but they also helped pull Chrysler out of its tailspin.
Leo-Arthur Kelmenson was born in Manhattan. He served as a paratrooper in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
After graduating from Columbia University after the war, Mr. Kelmenson began his advertising career in the mailroom of the firm Lennen & Newell, where he rose to senior vice president before joining Kenyon & Eckhardt in 1968. He remained chief executive at K&E through a series of mergers, the last of which made him the chief executive of a marketing, advertising, and public relations firm known as the Bozell Group. He retired in 1999.
Mr. Kelmenson’s major advertising clients included
But in the advertising world, his name was inextricably linked with Iacocca, who with Mr. Kelmenson’s help consistently registered third on the Gallup Poll’s list of the men Americans respected most in the 1980s, behind President Reagan and Pope John Paul II.