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Why Attend Car Shows When Photos Are A Swipe Away?

Stocks in this article: GM

More than half of visitors at the Detroit show are shopping for a new car, according to informal polls. And with car sales stronger than they've been in five years, attendance at NAIAS and other shows could be higher in 2013, after slipping during the recession. Car sales rose 13 percent to 14.5 million last year and could reach 15 million in 2013.

The auto show is the ideal venue for shoppers because they can browse without being pestered by salespeople, says Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with car buying site Edmunds.com.

"It's like the circus. It's the only place you can see it under one roof," she says.

It's also a circus for car companies. Literally. Infiniti will use performers from Cirque du Soleil to introduce its new small car in Detroit.

"Auto shows are one of the rare moments that the brand can meet the customer, shake their hand, look them in the eye and say, 'This is who we are,'" says Jim Farley, Ford's global marketing director.

Car companies had to cut back on their displays during the downturn. Most are no longer doing the kinds of expensive stunts they did at the Detroit show before the sobering recession, which forced them to close plants and lay off thousands of workers. In 1992, then-Chrysler chief Bob Lutz drove the new Jeep Grand Cherokee through a plate glass window. This year, Lutz will be talking to a holographic image of Thomas Edison at the display of electric-truck maker Via Motors.

And the element of surprise is gone. Icons like the Ford Mustang and Dodge Viper were seen for the first time when sheets were pulled off of them in Detroit. As recently as 2000, there were audible gasps when General Motors revealed the ungainly Pontiac Aztek.

"There isn't going to be that sort of shock and awe that you had at earlier shows," says Justin Hyde, senior editor of the Yahoo Autos' Motoramic blog.

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