DETROIT — For the sleepy-eyed morning commuters who travel into Detroit on the gray and crumbling John C. Lodge Freeway, it must have come as quite a shock last week to find themselves suddenly confronted by a huge, full-color painting of the planet Saturn at one of the main exit ramps into the central city.
The image of Saturn looming over downtown was put up on a billboard by the state of Missouri last week. It is just the latest evidence that the nationwide battle among cities and states to land General Motors Corp.'s proposed plant to build its Saturn car has reached outlandish proportions.
The quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying techniques that states normally employ in their economic development efforts have been discarded in favor of Hollywood-style public relations gimmicks, making the campaign for Saturn unlike any other industrial plant site selection process in memory.
And, as top politicians from virtually every major state in the union trip over each other trying to outdo their competitors in wooing GM, they've created a circus-like atmosphere that GM now complains is getting out of hand.
The Saturn billboard on the Lodge is one of three being erected on major Detroit thoroughfares by Missouri as part of its efforts to persuade GM to locate the Saturn manufacturing complex, with its 6,000 jobs, in that state.
In a play on words next to the picture of Saturn, the Missouri sign says simply: "Give us a ring. Missouri." After trying to convince GM officials of the wonders of Missouri in meetings last Thursday, Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft had his picture taken next to one of the new Saturn signs to show his constituents back home.
But Missouri isn't alone. Iowa will have its own Saturn billboards up soon. And the city of Chicago already has two signs on Detroit freeways that proclaim in big letters: "Saturn Corp.--Chicago wants YOU!"
Not everyone in Detroit thinks that the signs are very effective sales tools, however.
"I can't understand all this billboard stuff," one Detroit advertising executive grumbled last week. "It's the dumbest thing I've ever seen. They aren't going to win Saturn with billboards."
But unlike Missouri, which has to pay about $3,000 a month to rent each of its signs from Gannett Outdoor Co., Chicago is getting its billboards free. It just so happens that National Advertising Co., a subsidiary of 3M Corp., is based in Chicago, and when a powerful Chicago political leader, Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak, asked National Advertising to donate the signs to the city, the company complied. But when National's billboard charity caused a minor ruckus here, the company said it would also be willing to offer free Saturn billboards to Detroit.
Now that lobbying for Saturn is taking on all the trappings of the Battle of the Network Stars, talk show host Phil Donahue is getting into the act. Donahue has reportedly invited 14 governors onto his show this week to discuss their efforts to land Saturn.
Saturn has attracted all this attention since GM announced its plans to form a Saturn Corp. subsidiary in January because of its economic importance as GM's model for the automated factory of the future. And, along with the 6,000 jobs that will be created at the proposed Saturn manufacturing complex, GM expects another 14,000 jobs to be added in supplier plants serving Saturn. GM says that it hopes to select a site this spring and that production is likely to begin in 1988 or 1989.
"The thing that concerns us," said GM spokesman Don Postma about all the hoopla, "is that there will be only one site selected. We just hope that some of these people aren't getting their hopes up too high."