By on August 29, 2011

Knowing that some of the top PR professionals in the business are regular readers of TTAC (they could be anyone…), I can imagine a number of them shaking their heads in disapproval at the headline of this post. “It’s happened,” they’re probably muttering to themselves, “TTAC has finally lost the plot.” But instead of dismissing out of hand the seemingly preposterous premise of this post, I ask the assembled anonymous masses of PR pros to bear with me for a moment. As laughable as it might seem to postulate that the industry’s spin doctors can learn something from the most infamously “off the reservation” auto exec ever, the urge to write off this post is part of the very problem I hope to tackle. Allow me to explain…

With the depth of the financial crisis-precipitated recession behind us, and the auto industry showing some signs of returning to normalcy (if not the “old normal”), the temptation to rely on proven practices must be greater than ever. But although the industry is doubtless in better shape than it was a year ago (let alone two years ago), this is no time to sink back into complacency. Beneath the short-term shocks of the last several years, is a rising tide of more subtle challenges which are all-too easy to ignore. From weak products to increases in traffic, from government regulation to the social sphere’s shift towards the online world, a number of factors are conspiring to hollow out the industry’s cultural relevance, especially in “mature markets.” In Japan, the decline of the automobile has been so dramatic it’s even inspired a name for the emerging post-automobile order: kuruma banare. And if business-as-usual continues in the US, we’ll see that trend pick up pace here as well.

So, you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with PR? After all, the in-depth studies of kuruma banare identify it as the product of a number of trends (referenced above), many of which seem unavoidable. Though I wouldn’t pretend to have a definitive answer to the waning cultural appeal of automobiles, I am convinced that a paradigm shift in how automakers view and practice PR is the first step in revitalizing the image of the most powerful and sophisticated consumer good on the market. And the core of that shift can be found in, of all places, the writings of one Robert Lutz.

In his first book, Guts, the then-recently retired Chrysler product development boss laid out seven idiosyncratic “laws of business,” with such blasphemous titles as “The Customer Isn’t Always Right” and “Financial Controls Are Bad!” They’re the kind of “laws” that, on the surface, add to Lutz’s reputation as “overly opinionated” and a “loose cannon,” but for an industry built on consistency and process, they represent an eye-opening counterpoint to conventional wisdom. Which is, in my mind, precisely what is called for to combat a rising tide of automotive apathy.

For the purposes of this piece, let’s concentrate on Law Four: “Too Much Quality Can Ruin You.” As a consummate “product guy,” with a well-documented disdain for the entire business of PR (more on that in a minute), Lutz doesn’t mention spin-doctoring in his law, but the core of his argument applies nicely to it. Towards the end of the chapter on Law Four, he sums up:

“Given two extremes- “zero defects with no delight” and “delight with a few squeaks in it”- the public will always buy the latter.

Lutz revisits the theme in his latest book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, in which he publishes a memo he circulated through GM shortly after arriving there, aimed at repairing its moribund new product development system. In the last of ten rules with which he hoped to smash GM’s institutional reluctance to develop great products, he writes

Remember the Bob Lutz motto: “Often wrong but seldom in doubt.” None of us is infallible, and we all make errors. Remember baseball, where a batting average of .400 is unheard of! But pushing and arguing for what you believe to be the right course (while recognizing you just might be wrong, therefore, still willing to listen) is the key to moving forward. Errors of commission are less damaging to us than errors of omission. In our business, taking no risk is to accept the certainty of long-term failure. (Even Aztek, in this sense, is noble!)

This approach is essentially Lutzian, producing occasional “sins of commission” like the Pontiac Solstice’s compromised ergonomics and practicality, but also fundamentally changing the image of GM’s products. Apply this line of thinking to the world of PR, instead of just product development, and you’ll understand the essence of my argument.

Public Relations, by definition, is about creating a product: positive news and analysis about your company. And the higher “quality” this product is, the better your career as a PR professional will be. But what is “quality,” actually? With apologies to Robert Prsig, the best synonym in the industrial context is “consistency.” Consistently good news, generated with consistent regularity is the “product” the PR professional aspires to. Everything else is to be avoided or suppressed. But what few, if any, PR professionals (or the people who employ them) seem to understand, is that “too much quality” can kill PR strategically, even as it achieves tactical goals (obvious “wins” and attendant promotions).

What the “quality” paradigm leaves out of PR is an understanding of the consumers of PR. Just as GM failed to understand that a sixth-generation Malibu design that had “zero compromises” (based on its internal product development rules) could be utterly mediocre and unappealing to consumers, Automotive PR professionals fail to understand (or accept) that an endless flow of perfectly consistent positive news is equally unappealing. Nothing about the millenia of evolution that has shaped modern man has prepared us for the kind of “quality” the PR business provides; The human mind thrives on contrast, deriving equal enjoyment from a thrilling roller-coaster one minute, and a warm drink and good book the next. We understand reality through the twists and turns of narrative, the interplay between hero and villain, the drama of the rising power and the crumbling empire. Modern PR provides us with none of these things, preferring blindered, parallel flows of positive information: a “perfect mediocrity” (another Lutz-ism) that interests only those who are paid to feign interest in it.

These thoughts had been rattling around my brain ever since I began diving into Lutz’s work in preparation for my review of Car Guys, and when I met Lutz in person for the first time last week, I shared with him an abbreviated version of the argument you’ve been reading here. To my surprise, the idea of applying his product philosophy to PR had never occurred to him, although he seemed intrigued by the parallels. And then it occurred to me that this was precisely the point: though he’s always exercising his own form of PR, he’s never spared a moment’s thought for the traditional or tactical practices of the PR profession. Which is precisely why he is, love him or hate him, the sole towering industry figure in the imaginations of car guys and auto journalists. Yes, part of his appeal has to do with other aspects of his product philosophy and the vehicles he helped create, but the fact that he has no internal PR “quality control” makes him wholly unlike anyone else in the industry. The wild inconsistency between his penetrating insights and his flamboyant (for lack of a better word) bullshit is the antithesis of industrial PR “quality” and the key to his appeal.

As I left his rural spread just outside Ann Arbor, it occurred to me (and not for the first time) that there might well never be another auto executive like Lutz again. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine the industry ever overcoming the relentless loss of relevance and excitement that’s occurred as high modernity fades in society’s rear-view mirror. Yes, the cars themselves are important. But the people who dream them to life, create them from raw materials, and represent and defend them in the public space have to live up to the huge social and cultural impact that cars promise. In particular, the PR pros have to learn that eliminating risk is, to quote Bob one more time, “to accept the certainty of long-term failure.”

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69 Comments on “Bob Lutz, PR Guru: How “Too Much Quality” Is Killing Automotive PR...”


  • avatar
    jj99

    There is a 3rd alternative, delivered by Toyota and Honda.

    “Zero defects with delight”.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      *note: “delight” removed for cost, marketing reasons in the mid-nineties, defects currently introduced on a trial basis.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Delight? Exactly WHICH current Toyota or Honda product involves delight? Mind you I have had nearly all of thier current non-truck product as rentals in the past couple years. A delight-free zone if ever their was one, unless you actually ARE a Consumer Reports product tester. A friend of mine actually IS a product tester for CU, he drives a Land Rover Discovery.

      Though I guess they deliver delight the same way my Maytag washing machine does. Yup, it works every single time, never needs anything. But that does not exactly inspire me to do laundry all the time. Necessary evil at best.

      • 0 avatar
        LectroByte

        I’d say “delight” is a pretty subjective term. Some people are just delighted that the thing gets them there and back year-in year-out in a reasonable amount of comfort without a lot of headache or unexpected expense.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        True, that’s part of the problem. Delight is subjective. Did I find delight in hooning around Ohio in my 4cyl Celebrity or my dad’s Caprice wagon? HECK YES! (I still smile thinking about it.) Did I smile running 80mph down the freeway in a 1999 Town Car I borrowed from a local dealer while my girlfriends car was in for service? HECK YES!

        Does the average person likely consider any of the aforementioned vehicles “delightful”? HECK NO! Delight is in the hands of the hoon-er…

      • 0 avatar

        My ’04 Scion xB delights the heck out of me on a regular basis. Sadly the 2008+ ones are a lot less delightful.

    • 0 avatar
      nrd515

      When and where did this happen and where did it go to?

  • avatar
    CamaroKid

    “Given two extremes- “zero defects with no delight” and “delight with a few squeaks in it”- the public will always buy the latter.

    That fails to explain the sucess of boring sacks of **** like the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic or even the Lexus ES.

    Lutz’s failed history is full of “really cool cars” that NO ONE BOUGHT.

    As soon as you find a counter example to a law, it fails to be one. For Law 4 there are hundreds of counter examples. I would add this to his list of things that he was “often wrong” about.

    Even the statement makes no sense “Zero defects with zero delight and delight with some squeaks” ARE NOT extremes. “Zero defects with zero delight and delight with exploding transmissions, failed head bolts, fried ECMs, seized brakes, unserviceable suspensions, and leaking intake manifolds”… Those are the extremes… and Lutz is blind if he can’t see what America bought. IN DROVES.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      By “the public will always prefer this” he means “I would prefer this and I’m going to just assume that everyone else, or at least a large majority of them, shares my opinion”. You’ll see this in political arguments too.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, Lutz tends to see everyone as sharing the same priorities, which also tend to be his personal priorities. His perspective doesn’t seem to allow that some car buyers place a very high priority on reliability, while others put the highest priority on more emotional factors, and still others do their best to maximize both.

      The auto business is too competitive for a a company’s products to succeed by doing only one or two things very well, and letting everything else slide. Which is pretty much how Chrysler operated under Lutz.

      • 0 avatar
        DC Bruce

        But here’s the insight, Mr. K: If everyone thinks of cars the way they think of refrigerators, the car business will be a shadow of its current — not to mention former — self. If a car becomes no more than its functionality, people will replace it only when it becomes non-functional (i.e., whenever it runs out). That translates into a very different market structure than the one we have, and one that I believe is less profitable for those folks making cars, if only because the commoditization of cars narrows the arena of competition among suppliers: look what has happened to the PC industry (the Windows side of it, certainly, but even the Apple side).

        While watching back to back episodes of “Top Gear” during the sorta hurricane that we experienced this weekend, I finally “got it” about the show. At bottom, the show promotes the ideas that cars are fun! If we look back at roughly the first half of the last century, that was the “hook” that was used to sell cars: they are fun; they take you to cool places. In those pre-environmentalist days, the government even cooperated in this conspiracy by building roadways called “parkways” whose principal purpose was not to take you somewhere in a hurry but to give you an enjoyable, usually scenic, drive. Off the top of my head, I can only think of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive as surviving examples of that pure principle. Others have been taken over by the commuters (Rock Creek Parkway in DC; Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, etc.) and/or by the bicycle jihadis.

        There is certainly no doubt that the more a car is used to commute back and forth to work at an average speed of 20 m.p.h., the sillier it seems to do so in, say, a Porsche. In that environment, a high-riding SUV/CUV with a cushy seat, lots of cupholders and a good sound system makes more sense. And, as evidence for that, I offer the comments of numerous posters who claim to know how to operate a manual gearbox and a clutch, who admit that such a transmission provides a more “involving” driving experience, but who complain that it’s a PITA to drive one in stop and go rush hour traffic every day.

      • 0 avatar
        CamaroKid

        The real insight which both you and Lutz miss is that the VAST majority (and we are talking about 90%+) of the motoring public DO look at their automotive transportation as a boring appliance, one who’s job it is, is to schlep them to and from work, get the kids to soccer practice or bring home a weeks worth of groceries.

        If you look at top sellers, I see all kinds of really boring cars, How exciting is a Corolla, Camry, Civic, Malibu, Escape. These are ****boxes that you own to do a job and then you dispose of them when they are finished… No one ever sang a song about a Corolla… And yet they are HUGE sellers.

        On a car enthusiast site this is a hard reality to grasp. But as you drive around take a look at what is on the road with you… They are mostly boring piles delivering ZERO fun factor to their owners. Lutz’s history is littered with all kinds of cool fun cars that sat unloved on dealers lots.

    • 0 avatar
      Patrickj

      A sound car company needs to be able to both produce appliances that will go 200K miles with little more than oil changes, and cars that will provide excitement even at the expense of some design/styling flubs.

      Nissan may come closest to this over the years, though it adds a few too many mechanical flubs for my tastes.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    This is just an excuse for failing to ever build high quality cars. How can Lutz speak of the impact of marketing defect free cars when he has never had anything to do with one?

    • 0 avatar

      CamaroKid, CJinSD: The product side of this conversation will have its day in court next week, when we will publish the results of my nearly three-hour interview with Lutz. This piece is intended purely as a commentary on the state of automotive PR. The fact that Lutz is so polarizing a figure that this thread has been hijacked off-course from the first comment makes my point: Lutz seems comfortable playing the villain to some, which in turn makes him a hero to others. The industry needs to learn from his comfort with controversy in order to stay meaningful and relevant… even at the expense of consistent PR “quality.”

      • 0 avatar
        CamaroKid

        My post was about PR too… Lutz was wrong about product and he was wrong about PR. PR needs to be boring and predictable too. People do not want to read “exciting” press releases about stuck gas pedals or pre-BK turn-around. We can see this with the recent success of Ford. They could have made all kinds of hay from the GM collapse… and there PR was boring, steady, and nothing sensational… The result… huge sales increases.

        Like everything else in life, High risk PR can result in High rewards. It can also result in disasters like Lutz saying “I flew coach for the first time in my life today, I don’t know how you’all can stand it”.

        Clean up on aisle 8

    • 0 avatar
      PintoFan

      There is no such thing as a defect-free car, as much as the Japan fanboys would have you believe otherwise. Lutz was instrumental in leading the push for product quality at GM, and it showed. Shoving brand alliances aside, there is no merit to the argument that GM products of the Lutz era weren’t a marked improvement over previous years, and that they weren’t very dependable vehicles generally. The CTS, Malibu, Camaro- these were all high-quality products that Lutz was instrumental in bringing to fruition. Your contention is based on a churlish hatred of GM and domestic makes generally and not any kind of sensible analysis.

      • 0 avatar
        acuraandy

        ‘The CTS, Malibu, Camaro- these were all high-quality products that Lutz was instrumental in bringing to fruition.’

        To preface, I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Lutz and what he did for Chrysler and later GM over the years. With that said…

        My 2008 Malibu, although powertrain-wise running well for 125k miles, has been materially worthless. Sure, the interior gaps and plastics were nice, but that was about it. EVERYTHING else on the car has failed over time, and notably sooner than an ‘import’.

        Although Acura writes my paychecks and I thus have a bias, the Malibu was GM’s last chance with me, having always owned at least one GM over the 12+ years I have driven. With the exception of a GTO, G8 or Caprice PPV (all of which, by the way, Lutz paved the way for), I will NEVER own a GM again.

        This does not stem from a hatred of taxpayer bailouts (which I have) or lack of American pride, its all about quality for the dollar.

        Honda, Toyota and Hyundai simply build a better product, hands down. When GM understands this, and doesn’t continue to ‘count the beans’ regarding materials, i’d consider one again for a daily driver. Since that will not happen, well…

      • 0 avatar
        CamaroKid

        If you are going to lump the CTS as a high quality product, you need to Google CTS 3.6L timing chain failure first.

  • avatar
    86er

    As I left his rural spread just outside Ann Arbor, it occurred to me (and not for the first time) that there might well never be another auto executive like Lutz again. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine the industry ever overcoming the relentless loss of relevance and excitement that’s occurred as high modernity fades in society’s rear-view mirror. Yes, the cars themselves are important. But the people who dream them to life, create them from raw materials, and represent and defend them in the public space have to live up to the huge social and cultural impact that cars promise.

    Even when the Model T was omnipresent and reflected Henry Ford’s view that the automobile should be no less utilitarian and elicit no more sentimentality than the tractors he was so fond of and familiar with, people with passion eventually overpowered Hank’s vision despite the plethora of T’s on the road.

    Can that day come again? Should it? Was the democratization of high fashion in the automobile an outgrowth of public relations and the advertising age, where “every man [is] a king?”

    In some ways we’re returning a bit to the way Henry Ford felt about the automobile. There seems to be a disconnect between the passionate people who put out concepts like the Cadillac Ciel and what makes production; in other words, what we could build if x, y, and z variables weren’t present. Since we’ve built up an entire society around the car, the very passionate people working every day in the auto industry will either figure out a new way to re-engage the public, or we’ll move to some other way to express our aspirations for an uncertain future.

  • avatar

    The “overly meticulous” academic in me would distinguish between the content of the PR message and how it is delivered. Applying Bob Lutz’s perspective to PR would take risks with the latter by experimenting with various techniques. Some will be hits, others will flop. Ford is probably the best at inventive PR.

    I don’t think Bob Lutz would take a risk with the message. He might seem to be shooting his mouth off, but I strongly suspect that event this has been calculated. Relative to other execs he’s open, but this isn’t saying much. How much did Bob Lutz really divulge about what was going on inside GM, or about what he really thought about its cars, that he really should not have? I can think of only one instance, when he labeled Buick and Pontiac as “damaged brands.” His book is surprisingly tight-lipped.

    What Ed might be getting at is something more basic: actual openness and honesty. Much PR certainly aspires to make the company’s communication seem open and honest, but very little succeeds at this. It’s hard to fake, because people are very sensitive to faked honesty.

    Perhaps the only way to seem open and honest is to truly be open and honest? To communicate what’s really going on inside the company, bad as well as good? With a world where people look for any slip they can blow well out of proportion, and where undistorted communication is very difficult, this is apparently far too risky.

    So at best companies fake it.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      The best companies actually do it. Take Linux, for example — companies like RedHat and Canonical that keep their bug reporting process and source code (“blueprints”) open to the public.

      I’m posting this comment from a hot-rod of an Ubuntu laptop that has some squeaks and rattles with the power-management system that don’t occur under Windows, but I was able to submit a bug report and get an answer back from an engineer at Canonical in under 24 hours. Compare that to your usual OS vendor that tells its customer how it’s going to be, and pretends that problems don’t exist. Combine that with a set geeky power-tools that are awkward-at-best on Windows, and I’m far happier to be running Linux.

      I have a URL where I can track the progress of my bug, and watch the engineers at Canonical discuss it. If they say “bugger off, he’s just a customer”, I’ll know about it. If they say “hmm, that’s a hard one”, I’m likely to nod in agreement. I can also participate in the discussions with the engineers, and volunteer information or even source code (if I figure it out).

      That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. I am delighted with my powerful system that has some squeaks and rattles. One of the major reasons I’m delighted is that I’m a full participant in the quality-improvement process.

      If a car company would run a public bugzilla for their products, a bugzilla that their engineers were compelled to use for both internal and external bugs, I would be *delighted* with them. I would probably be as stalwart of an owner as I am a Linux user.

      But, alas, such ideas are probably squashed early on in the automotive industry, because the company’s lawyers are afraid of the liability brought on by openness — even though it will probably show that the company’s engineers acted with full professional due diligence most of the time. Furthermore, they’re afraid that their competition will use technical information about their products against them — but, considering how rarely this kind of happens with good products in the Open Source rule where people are encouraged to copy code (under certain conditions), I think the fears of this are overblown. And the last problem is getting bugfixes out to the customers — I think they call those “recalls” in the automotive industry, and having more recalls probably isn’t a good business decision. But if you want fanatic loyalty from enthusiasts, technicians, and engineers like me, just look at how the Linux guys are doing things these days.

      EDIT1: By sharing all of the technical details of your product freely with the public, you can create a class of enthusiasts, technicians, and engineers who have invested a lot of time and expertise in getting to know your product far better than any other. If it’s a better product, they become evangelists. If the product sucks, it’s at least the devil they know, and anyone who’s put that much time and effort in to learning about your product will probably work for free to help them improve it — like I did in the bug report I sent off to Canonical.

      EDIT2: A product like the Jeep Wrangler would be a great place to start with this. It’s a very serviceable machine that people already enjoy tinkering with, and there’s already a huge and technically knowledgeable enthusiast’s community. It’s also a niche vehicle, so that the company can get their feet wet with this kind of engineering-culture, without risking the company’s crown jewels (like the F-150 platform). I’m a Prius driving hippie and I’d probably buy a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, despite the lousy mileage and the fact that I never go off road — if I could have the same kind of interaction with Jeep’s engineers that I have with the Linux community.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Lutz is a player, and being a player is all about taking risks. You win some, you lose some. But if you don’t get out there and prepare to get the s**t kicked out of you, you won’t win any victories either. Battles are fought and lost, but the war is a perpetual one. People like Lutz always moves forward to the next battle, people like Lutz always lives to fight another day. GM Europe, BMW, Ford Europe, Ford NA, Chrysler and then back to GM. And as being a player, effectively everything that man says is some kind of spin, in one way or another. Lets call him the most successful troll in auto exec history. At least since John Z DeLorean disappeared from the limelight.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    While he is low-key, and quietly-intense, one could make the argument that Ford’s Derrick Kuzak is pretty straight-forward, open and credible.

    I’ve dealt with him one-on-one and found him to be both reasonable and honest (not something one finds much of in Detroit OEM managers), and I also find that his publick product-related statements are not hokey, overblown, but rather just factual.

    He just kinda says what he’s going to do, and then just does it.

    By the way, what did this anti-thesis of a player accomplish? Program Manager 2001 Explorer and 2004 Focus, Volvo 30/40/50, Mazda-3 & -5; Vice-President Product Engineering Ford of Europe (as new Fiesta and Mondeo/S-Max/Galaxy were developed); Group V-P Product Engineering.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Given two extremes- “zero defects with no delight” and “delight with a few squeaks in it”- the public will always buy the latter

    It’s a bogus duality, so it’s barely worth addressing.

    A car can be enjoyable to drive yet highly reliable. The two are not mutually exclusive. The Miata provides a good example of how that’s possible, as well as an example of Lutz’s failure to deliver an effective response that adequately addresses both aspects.

    What the “quality” paradigm leaves out of PR is an understanding of the consumers of PR.

    Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

    The problem for the automakers is fairly simple: In the modern era, cars are too expensive to be sold as disposable goods, and too commoditized to be sold without tangible, practical features such as reliability.

    At the same time, cars can’t be sold profitably without some level of scale, which requires aiming for the middle in terms of the intangibles. There is simply no place in today’s market for low-volume, low-price vehicles, which precludes most edgy, low-demand vehicles from being sold at deliberately low price points. This has everything to do with the nature of the production process and its associated costs, and almost nothing to do with promotion.

  • avatar
    DDayJ

    But wasn’t design an omission from the Aztek as well?

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      No, design was in it, problem was, it was a design that was prefered by a clinic, and which totally fulfilled all the qualitative aspects demanded of it by brand-management philosophy adherents. Problem was that it was not a design that resonated with anybody outside of these two limited groups.

      • 0 avatar

        Clinics have been blamed for approving many designs that actually failed within them. The Aztek did horribly in clinics. Marketing people didn’t like it, either. But they had little control over the design, no matter what you might have heard.

        The Aztek was the outcome of forcing a team to develop a car cheaply and quickly without the power or budget to do it right, simple as that. Everyone involved knew it was bad, the clinics confirmed this, but top management wanted something quick and cheap.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Michael, what you say may be true, but I fail how quick & cheap results in a certain odd shape. There have been lots of quick and cheap cars (original Mustang perhaps? Neon was done for 600M USD) which were attractive.

      • 0 avatar
        MoppyMop

        Quick and cheap in this case meant using the platform of the already ugly U-body vans.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        And the shape isn’t even the problem. The Prius is roughly the same shape as the Aztek, but I like the looks of the Prius and hate the looks of the Aztek.

        From all reports, the Atek is actually a pretty good vehicle, and would actually work fairly well for my needs. Alas, the design (in the artistic sense) is just plain ugly — and this is coming from a Prius driver! :-)

        If they’d made it look more like a station wagon, I probably would have bought one by now.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        For the life of me, I can’t understand all the hate for the Aztek. Was it the cladding? If so, I’ll agree to that, but as a whole, I liked the overall look, the only barrier to practicality was the sloped rear, which reduced utility – see Crosstour – other than that, it and the Rendezvous appealed to me. Certainly they were better designs than the minivans GM built them from!

        I like odd-ball cars, having owned a few – maybe that’s it. It’s me!

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        @Zackman: “For the life of me, I can’t understand all the hate for the Aztek. Was it the cladding? If so, I’ll agree to that, but as a whole, I liked the overall look, the only barrier to practicality was the sloped rear, which reduced utility – see Crosstour – other than that, it and the Rendezvous appealed to me. Certainly they were better designs than the minivans GM built them from!”

        There’s just something ugly about the way they sloped the back of the vehicle. That funky curve on the front fenders and those weird signal-lights didn’t do it any favors, either. Also, I don’t find 4-part grills appealing for some reason (sorry, Dodge).

        I agree about the practicality of the sloped rear roof. It’s probably not as bad as it appears, but if they’d just put a flat roof on the thing and called it a wagon, I’d probably own one. The 3500lb towing capacity and the cargo room are both things that would sell me a on a wagon, especially one with such lousy resale values, but, damn, it’s fugly!

        The mid-20s hipster advertising for the thing didn’t help anything, either. I wasn’t a hipster in my mid-20s, and I’m certainly not one now that I’m a parent and am actively looking for a wagon. Thankfully, I don’t watch commercial TV anymore, so it’s easier to see things for their own essence.

      • 0 avatar
        LectroByte

        The hate for the Aztek? I can remember the first time I saw one in the Pontiac showroom, I thought, they saw the family truckster from that Vacation movie, and thought it was a great idea…

        That weird grille/headlight setup just seemed hideous, and still does, and combined with the cheap-looking plastic on the sides was just too much. Later models did look much better though.

      • 0 avatar
        mazder3

        I liked the Aztek but I could not get past that cheap grey plastic interior and chili grease dash lighting. Why Pontiacs had to have $#!+ier looking interiors than my parents ’86 Cavalier is beyond me. The idea was sound but the execution was execrable.

        I’m still p.o.ed that the Rageous never made production.

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    Oh, I think Lutz has always been very astute at PR — the difference being that the traditional PR flacks work for the company, whereas Bob has always worked for Bob.

  • avatar
    FleetofWheel

    Ask Lutz how motorcycles have fared as they become high tech and high quality over the decades.

    Aside from a few outcasts with a death wish, what enthusiast wouldn’t want a possible future high performance motor bike (or car) with much higher safety/survivability design?

  • avatar
    Zackman

    When I signed up here a little over a year ago and saw Educator Dan’s avatar of Leslie Nielsen, meant to resemble Bob Lutz, I realized just how influential this man has been and still is in the automotive world, for better or for worse!

    The last “car guy” that made such an impact on me was Lee Iacocca, which turned me into a Chrysler fan for years – better or worse there too.

    Dynamic personalities can still be a factor in the automotive world because for many, cars still evoke emotion, although seemingly less on the young.

    I’ll be eager to read the next installment! I suppose I’ll have to read his book, too.

    White-haired guys have all the fun!

  • avatar
    HiFlite999

    For PR to be very effective, it needs to be (a) honest, and (b) create a desirable halo image for the product that includes the aura on the owner. The product itself is of secondary importance. The pre-1970 Beetles were crappy cars by most standards of even that time, but brilliantly marketed. PR was about the advantages of what small size and limited aspirations could off, plus how different the car was to the “usual”, all true claims. A Dodge SUV on a racetrack posing as a performance car is stupid by comparison. The Ford owner-interview commercials are spiritual successors to those old VW ads.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I wish Lutz would not so quickly dismiss the idea that a car could be nearly free from defect and fun at the same time too. Of course the idea of defects is so broad too. Does Toyota build fun cars with no defects? Nah, they’re pretty high quality but about as much fun as my fridge. (Except that one Lexus supercar that mere mortals may not possess.)

    Is a defect a poor interior? If its then I guess the Corvette isn’t perfect, but save that, it seems to be pretty close. GM has nearly always made consistently good trucks and SUVs (even when their cars were in the crapper). Are they fun? Well I’ve had fun blasting through snow and mud in different Chevy/GMC trucks/SUVs so I’d say, yeah. Saying excessive quality can kill you is a cop out. Quality and fun can go together. (How bout a Fusion Sport? The Fusion is a CR Good Bet.)

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Dan, here I go again, appearing to trail you, but after scrolling down over the comments for a fourth time and seeing your avatar of the late Mr. Nielsen, I had to stop and think about that photo – after laughing, of course – how I firmly believe that you have captured the essence of Mr. Lutz and how that picture represents the many cock-eyed ideas and opinions of his and of those who criticize him better than if your avatar was actually him!

      The wisdom of a true teacher! Kudos to you, my friend!

  • avatar
    jimmyy

    Bob Lutz is not relavent. His comment is a concept that helped wreck Detroit. But, Lutz did not wreck Detroit by himself. The UAW helped. Lee Iacocca has a hand in this mess. And, so did the entire Detroit workforce which is undereducated relative to the east coast.

    Worse, the current generation of Detroiters are confident of a Detroit comeback. They think the recall attacks and the earthquake have ruined Toyota and Honda forever. One problem. Toyota and Honda products are a decade ahead of Detroit. Detroit, no reason to fix your quality now. You should copy Ford and keep shipping older ( ine. Mazda 6, Mazda 2, Mazda 3, and Volvo ) designs with a computer screen screwed in the dash, then call this high technology. Perhaps you can exist for a little longer on fleet sales while you tell yourself quality is bad. Detroit, game over.

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      @”jj99 aka jimmyy” “The Detroit workforce which is undereducated relative to the east coast”?

      I have zero education, but I think I figured out why your known as a troll

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        Mikey, you’ve got to ignore these guys – they’re just trying to get ones’ dander up and the discussion turns into either a political mess or an “us vs. them” mess. Either way, nobody wins.

        Like I said over on “CC”, I scroll through it and read and possibly comment on!

    • 0 avatar

      jimmyy/jj – Please, stop. You’re starting to give the anti-Detroit/ anti-union/ pro-import crowd a very bad name. It doesn’t help our side at all to have a wordier version of Simple_Silvy.

      • 0 avatar
        Patrickj

        Rob, there are plenty of people here, you included, who support their POV without being shills. I don’t have a clear side in the Detroit/import debate, and find the shills only a minor annoyance.

        What does bug me is that nobody on the pro-import side that I’ve seen owns up to making a living from transplant factories of import dealers in the way that folks like Mikey (and others) have on the Detroit side.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, I work as a logistics analyst, with a regular freelance writing gig on the side. If I’ve been transplanted to the line in Kentucky or Marysville, it’s news to me…

        Admittedly, the only perspectives I bring to the argument are as a consumer — by which I’ve witnessed domestic cars repeatedly fail to live up to expectations and the competition — and as a passionate believer in social and economic Darwinism. Survival of the fittest. Failure is always an option. And if you don’t adapt… well, you die.

        So it’s little wonder why I loathe GM and, to a lesser extent, Fiasler (commensurate to that company’s lesser relevancy to the market.) Even after being granted taxpayer-funded free rides, and despite a (rapidly dwindling) uptick in sales and fortunes, I still see too little adaptation and evolution from the Detroit 2.1 and the UAW. I’ve also seen far too little suffering of those parties for their past sins for my liking.

  • avatar
    mikey

    @ Zackman….your right, at my stage in life I should know better.

    @ Rob Finfrock…..I disagree with most of your opinions. But at least your points are well thought out, and presented.

    jj is just here to stir up —–

  • avatar
    cheezeweggie

    Shouldn’t Jimmy be given some kind of commendation for using the word “Detroit” seven times in two paragraphs ? (Eight if you count Detroiter).

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Can we be done with Lutz? The fact that he likes to shoot his mouth off doesn’t mean there’s a reason to pay him any attention.

    He swung from rung to rung on various corporate ladders, lucking out here and there (and even taking Exide down) and finally ended up in a position of great influence in Detroit, where he accomplished exactly nothing. The SS GM went down while Lutz was fiddling with the trim on the deck chairs and denying the existence of a hole below the waterline.

  • avatar
    PintoFan

    I have mixed opinions on Lutz, but this isn’t necessarily untrue- for a certain segment of the car-buying public. Some people just want boring and simple (witness the ascendancy of the original Beetle and Camry), but there will always be a significant number of consumers that chose otherwise. If that wasn’t true, Mustangs wouldn’t still sell in droves, the Miata would have killed off Mazda, and the Corvette would be a vague memory rather than a halo car. The key is to have a balanced product approach, much like what Ford and Hyundai are doing now. The quality game isn’t an exclusive club anymore, and it’s not good enough to sell automobiles on that alone.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Personally, I feel that no matter the car, it CAN be made to be more exciting just by how you drive it.

    And by that, if you drive with a manual and let the revs go beyond the “typical” 3000rpm and utilize the upper rev band by letting them do the work when in lower gears, the car CAN wake up some.

    But by the same token some cars just simply can’t be made to be all that fun no matter how hard you try, but even a sporty car can become less fun by how you drive it.

    That said, this quote from Lutz himself is one I don’t agree with. “Given two extremes- “zero defects with no delight” and “delight with a few squeaks in it”- the public will always buy the latter.” as I agree with several others that have brought this up and that is these 2 qualities aren’t mutually exclusive of each other and that one CAN make a car that address BOTH sides of this argument. Nothing is set out as black and white, no matter HOW we try to make it so.

    And on that note, I find Lutz to be at least partly full of hubris with his ideas as he makes it so clear that his ideas are to be followed,whether right or wrong.

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    Interesting piece, Edward. You do realize, however, that if PR people take your suggestions seriously that all we’ll end up seeing from them is ‘planned’ imperfections carefully calculated and managed to achieve their desired results. It will be like those pieces of furniture that you can buy that have been deliberately machine manufactured to look like they haven’t been machine manufactured (with deliberately designed manufacturing flaws built into the machinery to make the product appear similar to the kinds of flaws and inconsistencies you see in hand-made products). Similarly you’ll just see carefully staged ‘inconsistencies’ designed to improve the ‘quality’ of the PR project (which we already see today).

    The real shame is that this kind of strategy actually works, but it’s still the same old machine-like, scientifically managed process that we currently see in large corporations of all sorts, just a little more ‘clever’ or wily than previous versions might have been. But there’s still no real spontaneity there.

    PR is really just another form of scientific management whose field is the management of Information. Like all forms of scientific management, it aims to manage all elements relevant to their product or aims, and to eliminate any and all relevant elements that cannot be properly controlled (e.g., unpredictable spontaneity). Instead of allowing for real or ‘natural’ spontaneity in the conveyance of Information, all PR people will do will be to try and mimic such natural spontaneity closely enough to influence people’s actions in the desired manner. The result will simply be more sophisticated forms of Information control in the manipulation of their audience. Such planned spontaneity might appear more ‘interesting,’ at least at first blush (more entertaining or appealing, if you will, like a Disneyesque portrayal of animals in Nature–and maybe that’s all most people really want), but what we will see is the ‘truth of the PR Information management’ (like the ‘truth of Disneyfied entertainment’), not the truth of the actual thing being portrayed.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      +1

      The scientific management of information. The trend I’ve been thinking about lately is “leaked information”, specifically spy shots. Carefully planned and timed by the company, or truly sniped by a 3rd party? I think it is a mixture of both.

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      Philosophil – I’ve been in the PR racket for 15+ years. What you say is essentially right, but I think this “unnatural naturalness” has become more prevalent the outgrowth of the social media revolution than time-tested theories. At least that’s the case as applied to the canned nature of how automotive PR is typically practiced.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        I agree about the social media revolution. The advent of the new information technologies has changed and is still changing the ways in which we relate to one another socially. A vital aspect of this is the advent of new ways of managing Information. The revolutionary impacts of these new technologies is still largely under-appreciated, but very real.

        As you probably know, this way of managing Information really began in a systematic way with Edward Barnays, but has reached increasing levels of sophistication with new research in Psychology, Neurology, Sociology, and Communications Studies (which, despite some people’s dismissal of academic programs with the word ‘studies’ is a real and very influential field of inquiry). It’s a fascinating field. I know I’ve mentioned this in the past, but anyone interested in the history of this stuff should watch Adam Curtis’ compelling BBC documentary called The Century of the Self. You can watch it online and Curtis does a beautiful job showing how the general field of modern, scientific PR was basically ‘invented’ by Barnays (based largely on the theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud).

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    The most fun car to drive in the world is no fun at all if it won’t start in the morning, and takes a week’s pay from my annual budget to repair it…

  • avatar
    axual

    Bob … you’re so last century.

  • avatar
    Darkhorse

    Kuruma Banare indeed. It’s like waxing eloquent about the Surrey with the Fringe on The Top in 1911. I knew the era of the car was over when I asked my twins (eight years old) if they’d help me rebuild the engine in my old Porsche 911. “No way Dad. That’s your stinky car that pees on the garage!” If my dad had had a Porsche when I was eight I’d of thought I was king of the world. Even though I didn’t know what a Porsche was then.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    If I’m understanding the point of this article -and I may not be understanding it- too much “quality” PR (defined as relentlessly upbeat positive news, while denying or downplaying anything negative) is dull, and uninspiring. Better to take Henry Ford’s attitude – Every Ford joke sells a car?

    On appliances: predictably, cars have again been compared to appliances in the context of “reliable but boring”. I want to suggest that washers, dryers, ‘fridges, et. al. are a lot more exciting to many people than car guys assume.

    First, one might like an appliance for it’s reliability – thin Maytag before it was bought by Whirlpool. While there is no longer a reason to buy a Maytag, as they are no longer the quality leader, one might still seek reliability as their highest priority. I don’t know what brand one would prefer, if reliability was the chief concern.

    As an aside, an Italian friend of mine commented that European appliances were much better than American ones, though he allowed that American appliances are more durable. It took me some time to wrap my head around that – being, as I am, reliability oriented. But he prefers to have more features and buttons, and is willing to give up some reliability.

    But there are other aspects of appliances. Why do people buy Sub Zero refrigerators? To show they have money. To show they are “into” cooking and need to have the finest equipment in their kitchen. In short, the same reasons one buys a Lexus or a MB.

    Why do people buy Bosch appliances? Because, manifestly, they show that this is not your Grandmother’s kitchen.

    Conversely, people are buying retro appliances -http://www.elmirastoveworks.com/ -expressly to show that their kitchen is like Grandma’s, with the implication that one can cook like Grandma. People also pay several thousand dollars to have old originals restored to better than new condition. http://www.antiqueappliances.com/

    Another aside, people remodeling kitchens on a budget have a devil of a time finding suitable looking appliances. Appliance manufacturers are loosing out on a niche market for retro styled yet affordable appliances.

    A cousin of mine keeps her Mother’s old wringer washer. She has a new washer too, but she likes using the old one fairly regularly. It’s just like a guy keeping his fathers car in the garage and getting it out once in a while. The old one doesn’t do anything as well as the new one (and I mean both washers and cars) but they are a connection to “simpler” times and fond memories.

    Appliances choices say things about income level, social group, what counts as good taste in one’s social group, sophistication, being up with the latest trends, etc. etc. Just like with cars, they can be much more than utilitarian machines that get the job done.

    And, like appliances, cars can sometimes (oft times?) be treated as boring appliances that serve only our transportation needs. If you are having difficulty understanding why your wife isn’t “into” cars, it’s because she views a car the same way you view the washer/dryer combo. OTOH, if you were to view appliances the way you view cars, you’d realize that there is a lot more going on in the manufacture and marketing of appliances than just offering machines that get the job done.

    Finally, appliances are becoming less durable and reliable. It’s unlikely your new ‘fridge will be operating 60 years from now, the way your grandparent’s ‘fridge does (You know, that one you keep the beer in, out in the garage). Appliances are more feature laden, but total cost of ownership is going up because the machines need to be replaced more frequently. Conversely cars are becoming more feature laden, yet more reliable and durable. It’s not hard to keep a car for 150K miles anymore. Even 200-250K is getting common. Your father needed several cars to go 150K miles. Adjusting the costs to compare old $s with new $s, your father probably had higher TC of ownership than you do.

    So perhaps we should not be so quick to label cars as “boring appliances”. Besides, your Granny’s V6 Camry will walk your Grandpa’s ’64 GTO, while also stopping and turning better by several orders of magnitude. The “appliances” are much much better cars than anything available a generation ago.

    • 0 avatar
      CamaroKid

      Wow an appliance enthusiast! and On an car enthusiast site!

      OK, while all of what you post is true and accurate, you miss, like others, the size of the market of people who buy the 23db Bosch Dishwasher or the Sub Zero fridge that blends into the Red Cabriuva cabinetry, or the Industrial grade double oven gas range that could be used to forge steel or cast aluminum.

      The reality is that most people buy plain white, zero feature, GE appliances that cost a few hundred and are expected to last 10 years, If the appliance only lasts 5 then the next time they buy LG (or some other equally boring brand). Of those a few upgrade to the “V6 Limited” and get the almost as boring “wannabe” Stainless Steel version that they hope will last 12 years. The parallel with most commuter cars bought is obvious.

      And the parallel with boring PR is obvious too.. Maytag ads used to be about just how boring their products were. They did nothing special, they just worked, while the repairman developed agoraphobia.. Of course when this was no longer the case and Maytag Neptune washers proved more likely to catch fire than wash your clothes (and on a scale of one to 10 how exciting is a smoldering washing machine?) they were toast (pun intended).

      Long and the short of it. Is there a market for “exciting” appliances? Sure, but lets be honest, while everyone might want a over the top subzero fridge with a built in tv and a laser to etch your family crest into each ice cube… The vast majority of people never buy those. As for PR, “exciting” PR will work in the short run, but the second you look goofy, disingenuous, hypocritical, or just plain wrong you are going to lose way more than you gain. Its long since time for Lutz to STFU and fade away.


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