After a brief commercial, the video above shows you… a brief commercial.
TTAC has long held such “pimpatorials” in profound contempt, decrying the blurring of the lines between journalism and advertising that is in full evidence in even this short clip from BMW: A Driving Obsession. As TTAC’s founder, Robert Farago once memorably put it
this website is nothing if not a bully pulpit for a certain otherwise unemployable automotive publisher/writer who considers the blurring of editorial and advertising about as defensible as Barry Manilow’s Grammy Award for Copacabana.
By trading all pretense of substantive inquiry for total access in its “documentary,” CNBC doesn’t just make itself party to a PR-driven shill-fest, it also makes it more difficult for “real journalists” to get access to automakers for real stories. After all, why spend time with a tough reporter chasing down a serious story when outlets like CNBC stand ready to “take viewers inside” BMW with the sympathy and considerate care of a great lover? BMW certainly has no incentive to discuss much beyond its “my biggest weakness is that I care too much” job-interview-answer narrative… that’s supposed to be the “journalist’s” job.
On the other hand, luxury brands are always swathed in gauzy media coverage if only because they do not make and price products based on pure market function. Branding is, at its most fundamental level, an exercise in convincing consumers to act in an irrational manner… and one can certainly argue that journalists have no real responsibility (or ability) to enforce rationality in the luxury market. BMWs aren’t essential commodities, and anyone who buys anything from a luxury brand should understand that on some level they’re overpaying for what they’re getting.
This gets to the heart of the challenge of covering the world of cars. The default, and most lucrative perspective on “auto journalism” is to simply be “obsessed with cars.” After all, every auto engineer, executive and PR rep will instantly share your innocent passion, and steer you well clear of any story that might call into question the value of the car or company you happen to be covering. Before you know it, you’ll be gazing deeply into the eyes of some well-dressed charmer who can list every magical way in which his or her employer lavishes its products with obsessive love. Pay no attention to the bad bet on Two-Mode hybrids, the oncoming rush of front-drive cars bearing the BMW roundel, the design department castration or the 5er GT… obsession is hard to maintain unless the news is consistently good.
The other way of approaching “auto journalism,” the perspective TTAC strives to uphold, is that cars are complex industrial products and consumer goods that have to be understood holistically, in context. Automakers already have huge advertising budgets to get out their side of the story, the side of the story that CNBC tells. But what about everything else? BMW is not a charity seeking to end the curse of dull driving, but a giant, complex, global entity devoted, ultimately, to the task of making money. Surely the most interesting untold stories at any such automaker would not, if well-covered, look indistinguishable from an advertisement. Sadly this perspective is hardly the most rewarding, both alienating advertisers and (more surprisingly) drawing criticism from readers/viewers who inevitably accuse you of harboring a deep hatred for what just so happens to be their favorite brand or company.
I drive a BMW, and I certainly like to think it reflects a certain level of obsession in its development. A lot of what CNBC presents about BMW reinforces what I like to think about my car, and it certainly helps justify the silly amount of money I spent on something that I in no way need. But it ain’t “journalism” (if such a thing even exists any more). And as long as cars are built for profit and sold with the help of huge advertising, marketing and PR support, it should be incumbent upon those who consider themselves journalists to do more than just duplicate those efforts.