As if it weren't hard enough trying to sell Hyundais in the land of Ford pickups and Unabombers, the dealers at Missoula Nissan-Hyundai of Missoula, Montana have David Letterman to contend with.

Last summer, when the air in Russia's Mir space station started getting chunky and the power systems were going dark, Letterman cracked, "It's not a space station, it's a Hyundai."

When the rerun hit Jan. 21, there was no joy in Missoula. That happened to be the birthday of Connor H. Ryan, a salesman at Missoula Nissan-Hyundai, and the comment didn't put him in a mood to celebrate. He sent an e-mail to Letterman promising to drive a Hyundai to New York, if the comedian would take it for a test drive.

Letterman ignored it. Hyundai Motor America Inc. didn't. The result is a whopping publicity stunt dreamed up by a big Los Angeles P.R. agency that will bring Ryan his 15 minutes of fame and may if it works help erase the reputation problems that made Hyundai a foil for Letterman in the first place.

"Letterman doesn't know anything about Hyundai. I bet he's never been behind the wheel of one," fumed Ryan, who on March 12 set out on a six-day dog-and-pony show engineered by Century City-based Rogers & Associates. "He makes enough money that he doesn't have to worry about his monthly payment, but most people in America do."

Hyundai already has a P.R. agency, but it hired Rogers for a special assignment: create a stunt to address the fact that Hyundai is still fodder for jokes on late-night talk shows.

The strategy goes something like this: Ryan set out last week in a silver 1998 Hyundai Tiburon with "Dave or Bust" painted on the side. Behind him is a chaser car mounted with a "Hyudai-cam" that will feed video footage to the national media, the Hyundai Web site and videocassettes mailed to Letterman. There will be six stops on the way to New York, with media blitzes in each city including "Dave or Bust" T-shirts mailed to the local media.

At each stop, local Hyundai dealers will autograph the car, and video vignettes will be shot. Meanwhile, in New York, reporters for the top 25 media outlets will get T-shirts and press packets accompanied by takeout Korean food (Hyundai is a Korean company), just to get their attention.

The agency has even worked up a "Top 10 Reasons You'd Rather Be in a Hyundai Than Mir," including lines like " 'Fully loaded' on Mir refers to the cosmonauts' blood-alcohol level," and "There is no chance that a Hyundai will fall on your house."

Letterman himself gets daily updates of the journey via videocassettes, a T-shirt and Korean food, and Ryan will pull the car up to the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York during the show's taping in hopes that Letterman will take notice.

It seems like a lot of effort and money (Rogers & Associates won't reveal how much its client is spending for all this, but you can bet it's a bundle) for something Letterman may never acknowledge. When Ryan contacted CBS officials after his original e-mail, he was told, "If (Letterman) didn't think of it, he's not going to want to do it."

But Dan Zukowski a vice president at Rogers who is coordinating the event, said it doesn't matter whether Letterman puts Ryan on the show. The agency has already gotten commitments from local reporters to ride along in six cities along the route, and Zukowski is confident there will be plenty of national coverage even without Letterman.

Publicity stunts like this one aren't likely to sell many cars, but they're a tried-and-true technique for attracting media attention. Zukowski hopes the Letterman stunt will help market the Hyundai brand and combat some of the company's continuing reputation problems.

"If somebody makes a joke about you and you stay silent or get mad about it, you kind of acquiesce to the joke. But if you laugh along with it, you make a point, and you remain likeable," Zukowski said.

Hyundai could use the goodwill. Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America has been losing market share to Korean archrival Kia Motors Corp. Hit hard by the Korean financial crisis, Hyundai's parent company is looking to cut costs in its overseas operations and in the last few months, that has meant 64 layoffs in Fountain Valley, 11 percent of the company's U.S. work force.

Meanwhile, Hyundai's U.S. sales target for 1998 is 110,000 vehicles 3,000 fewer than it sold in 1997. It may be hard-pressed to make even its less-than-ambitious goal; only 6,426 Hyundais were sold in January, while Kia, normally the No. 2-selling Korean automaker in the U.S., sold 7,197 cars.

The word on Hyundai is that the company really does seem to be making better cars than it was when it first launched in the United States 10 years ago, but that its "low price, low quality" reputation lingers.

"They're filling in (as the butt of jokes) now that Yugo's out of the business," said Ryan. "What irritates me is that even though the car has gotten much better, the jokes continue."

So Rogers is fighting jokes with a long and elaborate joke of its own.

"We started this company 19 years ago in the product marketing, promotions and publicity business. We're involved in so many complicated, sophisticated kinds of communications now that it's kind of fun to return to our roots," said agency President Ron Rogers. "This kind of thing gives us a creative outlet for some of the crazy things."

Rogers, by the way, isn't kidding about diversification at his agency. It recently began branching out into public affairs marketing and government contracting, with explosive results last year. Its 1997 fees grew to around $6 million, a 43 percent increase over the year before making Rogers & Associates likely the biggest independently owned P.R. agency in the county.

News Editor Dan Turner writes a weekly column on marketing for the Los Angeles Business Journal.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.