If you saw the video above on Autoblog, accompanied by some tired prose suggesting that you summon some enthusiasm for this, the latest automotive promotion, would you think twice? You might if you knew the person who posted the story, and knew they were being paid to promote said promotion. But how does one actually get an inside look at the gritty world of automotive PR payola? How do you break through the great wall of… what’s that, Jalopnik?
Today, Autoblog writer Jeff Glucker wrote about Nissan’s Britney Spears contest. Trouble is, he’s working for the agency that’s running it.
Earlier this week, [then-Autoblog Associate Editor Jeff] Glucker sent out an e-mail solicitation to several of his contacts in the automotive website world, asking for help promoting a new campaign for the Nissan Versa:
I am working with third-party agency that’s assisting Nissan with a new campaign for the Versa. No, I didn’t lose my job or anything – this is just some side contracting work so I can buy a second iPad or golden shift-knob for my car.
Oh right, you just have to open your eyes.
Autoblog’s Editor-in-Chief, John Neff, quickly responded:
Autoblog’s editors were completely unaware of this improper relationship. Upon hearing these allegations, we conducted our own internal investigation into the matter and found the report to be true. Upon this discovery, we immediately terminated our relationship with Mr. Glucker and removed the article in question. We will also be reviewing Mr. Glucker’s other articles to determine if conflicts are evident.
I would praise Mr Neff’s response, except for two things: first, it was the crushingly obvious choice, and second, the reaction from commenters was decidedly ambivalent. One commenter in particular captured the cynical outlook on Autoblog’s mission, sneering
What a buzzkill, Neff. Way to go.
Like this website isn’t just a bunch of fluff pieces anyway.
And that’s the real problem. Glucker’s screw-up was spectacularly blatant, but it’s just a symptom of the larger disease. When you’re being paid peanuts to sling warmed-over press releases, when you joke about the stupidity of your own commenters, when “PR-friendly” is the name of the game, “screw-ups” like this are inevitable. And any business that relies as heavily on popular opinion as the car business does will see to it that “screw ups” like this are inevitable (preferably through an agency). We’ve seen where this rabbit hole ended up for the less-scrupulous buff books, and it ain’t pretty.
Meanwhile, what’s most chilling about all this is the Kitty Genovese effect that had to happen for the Jalopnik post to exist at all. I can understand why Glucker’s (“part-time”) employer didn’t insist on ethical behavior, and why Autoblog’s readers and editors were in the dark and/or apathetic, but what about Glucker’s “contacts in the automotive website world”? That not even one returned his email and clued him to the problems with having an online automotive marketing “part time” job while working for an online automotive media outlet should be surprising… but sadly it isn’t. A somewhat more surprising possibility is that one of these “contacts” actually ratted Glucker out to Jalopnik, rather than giving him a much-needed reality-check. The most implausible scenario of all: Glucker was stupid enough to actually send the email to a Jalopnik staffer, who was the source for the story. The problem isn’t just that Autoblog’s readers don’t seem to care much about Glucker’s sin, it’s that his “contacts,” his fellow automotive bloggers, didn’t care that he was screwing up either… unless they could use the story.
I don’t blame Jalopnik for running their story. It’s the truth, Glucker certainly screwed up badly enough to be fired, and as Hunter Thompson put it, “a man with a greed for the Truth should expect no mercy and give none.” But the conditions that create these kinds of problems aren’t going to go away unless automotive writers embrace a culture of pride, not just in themselves, but in their entire profession. A cluelessly blatant shill email like Glucker’s should elicit a brisk, collegial ethics lecture in the best case, or stinging (but private) mockery in the worst. But because emails like Glucker’s are the everyday staple of the modern “automotive journalist,” because nobody in the business likes to speak up on ethics, and because hypocrisy is rampant, his colleagues looked the other way. And they let him walk of a cliff, chasing a golden shift knob.