By on July 11, 2011

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.

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19 Comments on “Pimpatorializing Ain’t Easy (Unless You Do It For BMW)...”

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    They should have tried “overengineering” the M Diff, or the twin-turbo 335i, or, I don’t know, THE ENTIRE F&*KING 750iL.

  • avatar

    Unfortunately, this kind of blurring between advertizing or advocacy and critical, fair-minded reporting has infected many areas of life these days, making it more and more difficult to separate the wheat from the all too common, often glamourized, and sometimes difficult to distinguish chaff.

  • avatar

    BMW: “Let’s see, we spend couple million a year advertising on CNBC. We’d hate for that to be re-evaluated because of a negative story…”

    CNBC: We’re sure we can work this out. Mind you, we are NOT compromising our journalistic integrity to protect our ad dollars!”

    BMW: Of course not. Perish the thought!

    CNBC: As long as we’re clear on that.”

    BMW: Absolutely! We’d never countenance such a tawdry thing. Oh, here’s your check.”

    CNBC: Oh, thank you! Umm, could you just put that in a plain envelope for us?

    • 0 avatar

      This is the inevitable result of the intersection of capitalism and journalism. I find that the only answer, imperfect tho it may be, is not for profit reporting like PBS and NPR.

      • 0 avatar

        PBS/NPR (or BBC, CBC, etc) are a good counterbalance to privately-owned media. They’re not a solution in and of themselves, for obvious reasons.

        It really should be about balance, and it’s a damn shame that the many of the public outlets are being bankrupted in terms of capital because of ideology, and in terms of message by criticism of they’re being too divorced from populist fervour. That’s the point.

        For-profit media should scare anyone. It’s, by a large margin, omnipresent, hideously powerful and by it’s nature unaccountable.

  • avatar

    Isn’t everything these days about greed? Somebody wants to get paid, and the way some do it is to sidle up with a manufacturer to “review” their wares and to be “objective” as long as it doesn’t criticize (too harshly).

    Too much money on the table, too many perks at stake to pass up.

    Fact of the matter is, some outlets, like TV, if the programs are too hard-hitting as on a news show, or if an entertainment program crosses a line of some sort, advertisers head for the hills and won’t buy ad time. Again, money and a payday is at stake.

    On the other hand, if a reviewer is too harsh, that works against as well.

    How do you win? Where is the line? I don’t have an answer. That’s why I come here.

  • avatar

    Also, if you can’t drive it like it’s being driven in the commercial, you shouldn’t be allowed to buy the car!

    • 0 avatar

      “Drive it like it’s being driven in the commercial”?

      The only BMW commercial I can really remember is one from a few years back. It featured a typical middle-class hausfrau passing a semitruck. On the right. On a 4-lane divided highway. She finally notices the OTHER semi coming up the onramp about to occupy the space she’s heading into, and responds by…. flooring it to zoom out in front of both.

      The message: “BMW, powerful enough to rescue you from the consequences of stupid inattentive driving.”

  • avatar

    Excellent editorial, Ed. You make an especially good point concerning how pieces like this make real access all the more difficult. A book about BMW sparked a very similar reaction from me 7-8 years ago. Coincidence that the subject company was the same?

  • avatar

    What about shows like Speedmakers or Ultimate Factories? Those are essentially hour long advertisements. I mean it’s cool to see them put a Lamborghini or Lotus together but it’s not quite a documentary. FWIW I thought that CNBC’s special on Ford earlier this year was pretty good for a non enthusiast media venue.

  • avatar

    At least when Ron Popeil sells his rotisseries you know it’s an infomercial.

    When they get a chance, maybe they can over-engineer their high pressure fuel pumps so they’re as reliable as, say, Hyundai’s.

  • avatar

    “I certainly like to think it reflects a certain level of obsession in its development.”

    Maybe, but don’t go too far with the idea … reality is, a) that when a supplier engineer comes to an engineering meeting in Munich, both the BMW engineer and the BMW purchasing-guy show-up, and b) BMW have their fair share of stupid and dangerous recalls too …

    But on the up-side, the BMW cafeteria is kick-ass cool with great food and (listen-up Jack) a lot of hottie chicks…

    That said, if I ever make a million, I will buy a Z8 (If I can find one without the malleable space-frame defect.

  • avatar

    He talks like overengineering is a good thing. Looks like BMW is overengineering the ads on TTAC. Four or five per page or thread would have sufficed.

    The zero cost maintenance is like BMW giving you $1000 of your own cash back, over time, with zero interests. I’d rather keep my cash at the start and do my own oil changes and windsheild wipers.

  • avatar

    At the end of the day BMWs are for suckers. You can go on and on about the overengineering and the “joy” of driving one, but they’re just silly. Between the overinflated pricetag and the crippling maintenance costs that kick in around year four, it’s only brand of car that makes more sense to lease. That should be your first clue that these cars are just a bad idea. These cars will nickel and dime you to death every way you look at it, and the loyal owners keep coming back for more. Regardless of whether or not they can afford it.

    There’s a long list of BMWs past that I’d love to have, and I’ve even pondered those dangerously tempting 3’er lease deals more times than I care to admit. It’s just not worth it. And, frankly, after listening to all the hype in the car magazines for years, I’d probably just be disappointed, anyway.

  • avatar

    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

    To be fair, I’m not sure what you’re expecting BMW (or for that matter, just about any other corporation on the planet) to do here. It’s not as if the purpose of their media relations departments is to confess to every mistake, half-assed product concept or bad idea that these companies have ever cooked up. Car companies want to move metal out and stock prices up; creating the doubt and ill will is your job.

    If there some sordid story hidden away, it will have to be uncovered through good old-fashioned investigative journalism. The source is going to have to be a mole, a disgruntled employee, a dismissed whistleblower, somebody other than the guy who is specifically paid to smile for the camera. You can fault CNBC for indulging in such ridiculous fawning, but not BMW for giving it to them.

    Mr. Farago’s point with this site was that most information available from the news media about cars is The PR Spin About Cars, not an objective assessment about the topic. “Truth” has very little to do with what is published. For the most part, the media just doesn’t take the subject very seriously — car info is largely viewed as being filler to hold the advertisements together, not as a topic that is worthy of high regard or respect.

  • avatar

    This is an excellent editorial and explanation of the vision and need for this site and its approach to journalism. It’s probably appropriate that the subject probably also inspires the most passionate responses, from those who love, hate and feel a mixture of both towards BMW.

    I will say that I used to also question the value of BMWs and the choices of people who drive them until, one night after being somewhat underwhelmed over a test drive of a TSX, I decided to see if driving a BMW was really that much better.

    On that night, along a curving, undulating road where I could turn a 328i loose, I found out. At one point, free of traffic, I heel-toed around a corner and felt the responsiveness of the back wheels pushing me up and over a hill, crashing through swarms of midges darting in the headlights, the sandwashed silk song of the engine whispering to push it harder.

    I understood. Afterwards, practicality creeped in, such as how the lack of a spare and dipstick both bother me, the likelihood that a used 328i could have very well gone 15K miles on its original oil, thanks to the intricacies of the maintenance program, the long term costs and reliability, particularly given where and how often I drive. But the experience was enough to understand how good those cars really are, enough to even feel some remorse that BMW increasingly focuses its efforts towards those drawn to the brand for the “aspirational” status, and even that the naturally aspirated inline six will soon be a thing of the past.

    So, I loved the drive but, for now at least, decided to let it remain in the memory of a single, memorable night.

  • avatar
    Robert Fahey

    Here’s an erstwhile “60 Minutes” documentary on Lamborghini. Is it any better?

  • avatar

    “The other way of approaching ‘auto journalism,’ the perspective TTAC strives to uphold…”

    That paragraph pretty much sums it up for me. And there are those of us interested in shifting our perspectives (and actions) to such ends. Where is the journalistic devotion to truth and citizenry?

    Verification does not mean “taking their word for it” any more than paraphrasing/re-tweeting press release soundbites resembles independence from those being covered. Journalism is supposed to provide a forum for public criticism and compromise; it should present the significant in such a way as to make it interesting and relevant to society, not pander to the gratuitous.

    The pie of automotive “journalism” has been sliced into too many pieces. It’s an industry rank with meaningless reviews and non-newsworthy content designed to maintain the status quo, to preserve the free rides, free lunches, and plastic lifestyles of those who willingly sell their readership to the highest bidder.

    Kudos to everyone at TTAC. It’s pieces like this that keep me coming back.

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