“If Woodward and Bernstein had been automotive journalists, the Watergate story would have been a five-star review of Richard Nixon’s personal tape recorder.” I’m putting that in quotes, even though I just wrote it, because I think it’s quotable.
“I’m increasingly of the opinion that while critical opinion is necessary — especially with a big purchase like a car — manufacturers are wasting time and money by catering to writers with large or focused audiences but little pull in terms of who actually purchases the items.” Now that was written by Michael Banovsky, in his recent piece regarding free-ride automotive journalism, and I think it’s also quotable, although it lacks that certain ‘zing’ that my quote has.
The aforementioned Mr. Banovsky has a novel idea: that manufacturers should stop paying for auto journalists to enjoy unbelievably sybaritic new-vehicle launches, $80,000 free loaner cars disguised as “long-term testers”, and all of the other little bennies of the biz. Instead, the money (and it’s a lot of money, reckoned to be over five million dollars per year in the case of some of the bigger automakers) should be spent reaching out to, and connecting with, the actual customers for their products. In short, auto journalism as we know it needs to die. The denim-jacket fatties and bald old buzzards who shuffle-steer their incompetent way through a driving event, hold down barstools for the evening, and then rewrite the press release during the flight home — well, they should be taken out back and shot. The color rags should wither and fall from the shelves like autumn leaves, with only the lace-like rotted pages of a MacNeil Products special-advertising section remaining. The functional illiterates who take a free plane ticket to an auto show, have their hands held by PR reps through a scripted sequence of roundtables, and then breathlessly blog about the “awesomeness” of cars they’ve never driven — they will become as difficult to find as their talent was. All change, as they say. Everybody goes home.
He’s right, and he’s right about why. The Internet will eventually connect manufacturers and consumers directly, with very little third-party (lack of) expertise muddling the flow. That’s the end of the story. But the road to that happy ending will be longer than the road Dorothy took to Oz, and here’s why.
Let’s start (cue groan from the readers) with the reason automotive journalism in its traditional form exists It’s interesting to note that special-interest car rags have been around nearly as long as the automobile itself. Autocar was founded in 1895, and the inimitable LJK Setright tells us that it was originally a bit of a shill rag, featuring far-from-impartial opinions to benefit its owner, who also held part of Daimler. The idea of the self-published auto magazine is still with us — nearly every major carmaker publishes an utterly worthless color rag on a quarterly-ish basis, complete with moronic reviews of luxury hotels, expensive watches, and second-tier men’s fashion — but I find it hilarious that the most dignified name in the print trade was corrupt from Day One.
As we’ve all heard, the automobile is the second-most expensive purchase we will make in our lives, unless we buy a used Porsche 928, in which it will be the most expensive purchase we will ever make. It’s no surprise, then, that buyers have been looking for advice since the nineteenth century. In some cases, such as when Patrick Bedard left an engineering career to work for C/D, or when Consumer Reports decided to pay its own money for cars to test (mostly) impartially, the buyer has been well-served by listening to that “expert advice”.
Other examples of automotive “expertise” are closer to being laughable than reputable. Consider the “Wheels” section in nearly every major newspaper. The “Wheels” writers are as numerous as Biblical locusts at the new-car launches, and they descend on the buffet table with the same legendary ferocity, but in most cases they are completely unqualified to review automobiles. They aren’t engineers like Patrick Bedard, race car drivers like Paul Frere, or even hopelessly passionate and lyrical enthusiasts like Gordon Baxter. They’re just the guys who sucked too hard to be permitted to write about something critical, like municipal levies, local flower shows, or country-club golf tournaments. The “media associations” like TAWA and MAMA are filled to bursting with these $40,000-a-year careerists.
I believe that the phenomenon of the all-expenses-paid press event evolved to suit these easily-impressed mooks. As Mr. Banovsky notes in his article, there’s an almost hilarious conflict of interest involved here. You take a guy who barely earns enough to feed his family and put him up for two nights in a boutique hotel, pay for all his meals, keep his glass filled with cost-no-object alcohol, and let him drive brand-new cars. He’s living like a prince on someone else’s dime! Only a fool would do anything on the flight home but rewrite the press release.
And if the proverbial carrot is large, the proverbial stick can be larger still. This Panamera review made Porsche PR people angry enough to call my editors and make some “suggestions for improvement”. Since I already own three Porsches and am accustomed to the policy of hateful contempt with which the company views all but its most monied customers, I wasn’t really surprised, but I also have the luxury of not relying on autojournalism to pay my rent. I’m now more or less banned from Porsche events. If I needed to make my living writing about cars, I’d be in a world of hurt.
This is the problem in a nutshell. Real journalists go out and find their stories at their own expense, or their employers’ expense. Automotive journalists are effectively compensated by the manufacturers on which they report. And if an autojourno decides to take a “principled” approach, refusing to participate in press launches or take loaner cars… that writer will be effectively six months behind the competition. Would you, as a reader, rather read about the 2011 Shelby GT500 in May or November? Will you wait until November to read a review of a dealership-stock car, or will you eagerly gobble-up the May review, which will be paid for in some way by Ford?
The solution proposed by Mr. Banovsky: stop inviting journalists to events. Rather, manufacturers should invite existing customers to attend preview events, and manufacturer-sponsored discussion forums should eventually replace general-interest automotive news sources as the place for consumers to get their information. The dirty business of checking panel gaps and testing slalom speed can be left to Consumer Reports. Anybody stupid enough to read their local “Wheels” section will still probably see a regurgitated press release on the top fold fifty times a year, so no harm done there.
The advantages of this approach are easy to see. The direct interaction between manufacturer and consumer allows the desired messages to pass both ways with minimal interference.
“Hey, customer, We put the 5.0 in the Mustang just like you asked.”
“Great! And while you’re at it, could you put a Blu-Ray player in the 2012 model?”
“Sure! Come back to www.yourfordmustanginfosource.com for the details on how you’ll be able to order it, and while you’re here, why not purchase a ‘The 5.0 Is Back’ T-shirt?”
This doesn’t sound like a very impartial way for consumers to receive new-car information, but trust me: Putting a fifty-year-old man who normally drives a used Corolla behind the wheel of a Corvette ZR1 and letting him putter around a racetrack, thirty seconds a lap off the pace, isn’t exactly delivering absolute truth either. The feedback received by the manufacturers will also be of much higher quality. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard some drunken moron lecturing an engineer about “the real best way” to do something during an after-dinner free-drinks session, I could probably afford a “The 5.0 is Back!” T-shirt. It’s been shown time and time again that listening to auto journalists is a losing game, particularly when it comes to introducing high-cost specialist product. Consider that the auto press moaned for years about the lack of a manual-transmission E60 M5 and then crucified the car upon its arrival. Oops! And the Astra. And the GTO. The list goes on. The color rags have no idea what really sells cars, and neither do the bloggers. If bloggers were in charge of product planning, every manufacturer would offer a six-speed turbodiesel wagon of every single model, and the resulting flood of absolutely unsaleable cars would cause California to collapse into the ocean.
Customers, on the other hand, tend to be reliable sources of purchase information. Know why? They’ve actually purchased the product in the past. They have credibility. Asking some community-college lard-ass who’s never bought anything newer than an old Volvo station wagon what you should sell to the general public is a losing strategy. As Packard used to say, ask the man who owns one.
I’m speaking from personal experience here. I’ve purchased several new VWs, including two freakin’ Phaetons. I have probably signed sales orders for $300,000 of new Volkswagens. VW has never asked me anything. Instead, they hold cost-no-object parties for “social media leaders”, who tell them to import more diesel wagons and then drive home in twenty-year-old GTIs with ironic stickers covering the tailgate. No wonder the VW brand is in free-fall. Maybe VW should try something different. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to interact with the customers.
Automotive journalism has survived due to arbitrage of information. As discussed above. autojournos see the product well before the public does, and are granted no-cost access to it through loaners and long-term fleet cars. They — we — have the information and you don’t. If the manufacturers took that “gap” in time and access away, the “experts” would simply vanish. Why listen to what Bob Denimjacket has to say in your local paper about the 2016 Chevrolet Impala SSSSSSS if you can attend a customer event on the same day and see for yourself? Sure, there will still be a small market for detailed performance numbers, but in an era where everybody takes a video record of their dragstrip runs and open-track laps, that market will be small indeed.
This is my vision of the future: Joe Customer wakes up on a sunny Sunday. His tablet/smart paper/superphone says to him, “Good morning Joe. You’ve been happy with your Nissan 160Z and you’ve been an active Official Z Forum participant. The new Nissan 180Z is coming to a release event in our town this week. Would you like to chat with an expert system about the car’s features, schedule your own exposure event, or have a complete simulation of the car loaded into your PS6 for a few laps of the old Fuji circuit?” In a world like that, nobody’s reading some smarmy, cliche-ridden drivel review in Motor Trend. The guy from MT won’t see the car before you do, and you wouldn’t trust him anyway. You might trust nissanZfan1983, a guy you know on the forums who races Z-cars. Maybe he’ll meet you at the event, or you will chat about it over Skype, or you’ll race each other in a simulator. In any event, you’ll make up your own mind.
When you have your own personal Nissan 180Z long-lead event, probably a parking-lot autocross with 100 or so other owners, you might say, “You know, I like the seats in my current 160Z better. Can you do something similar to those?” If the feedback from enough 160Z owners is along the same lines, when the 180Z reaches your dealership, those seats will be an option.
That’s the future, and it’s outstanding. It probably means more “Wheels” guys will be homeless and holding cardboard signs at freeway exits reading “Will Shill for Grey Goose”. I consider this a bonus. But the road to that future is going to be bumpy. The first manufacturer to take Mr. Banovsky’s advice and turn away from the free-ride merry-go-round is going to take a pasting. They won’t be discussed favorably in print or in major blogs. Rumors will fly. Mean things will be said. Snide comments will be made. It will be widely supposed that they have turned away from conventional press PR because their product is antiquated, or second-rate, or simply not good enough for the (*snicker*) “glaring spotlight of journalism”.
In fact, any carmaker who wants to know what it’s like to focus on real customers instead of the press can talk to Tony Crook. Mr. Crook is a former Grand Prix driver who ran Bristol Cars for nearly a decade. Bristol doesn’t bother with press drives. There are no press loaners. There are no press events. The auto media is not welcome to tour the factory. Bristol prefers to work directly with their existing customers and find out what they want in a car. Their business grows, such as it does, by word of mouth and exposure to the product in the hands of owners. Go read a Bristol non-review in an English magazine to get a sense of what will be said about any manufacturer who hops off the freebie train. It’s rarely complimentary.
Still, Bristol is alive and Pontiac is dead. There’s a lesson here, if we could only figure it out.