“Go to the Bonhams site and start your bidding for a piece of history from the lifetime of a larger than life car connoisseur and story teller.” Is this a paid advertisement for Bonhams? Is it a late-night television informercial? Nope, it’s an article in Autoblog, encouraging people to bid on a particular auction. Who wrote the article for Autoblog? Well, if you have to ask…
Last week, Autoblog ran a story on Bonhams’ auction of automobiles and memorabilia belonging to the late David E Davis. Multiple TTAC readers contacted me privately, asking, in effect, “What are you going to do about this?” I took a look at the article as originally published, nothing the writer’s claim that
Behind every item there’s a big and personal story and the pleasure of bidding on and owning any of these choice memorabilia would be made finer only by the original owner and raconteur being present to regale us with the details. Davis is acknowledged as being the one responsible for the original success of Car and Driver Magazine in the 1960s and of having saved it again in the 1970s and 80s. Prior to that, Davis had worked originally at Road & Track. Following the CandD years, Davis then founded Automobile Magazine which he turned into a success despite heavy industry skepticism about the need for another car enthusiast title…
The two key items on auction by our assessment – though it’s tough to choose, of course – are the all original ’51 Caddie with smooth running 331 cubic inch OHV V-8 and lot n.128 – a well preserved red felt race-day pennant from the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race
All of us in the autojourno biz are prone to writing some, ahem, advertorial prose from time to time, but this went beyond simple enthusiasm into outright salesmanship. Still, what’s the problem?
Plainly stated, the problem is this: the writer of this advertorial is Matt Davis, who happens to be DED Jr.’s son. Absent the information that DED’s estate was going to, say, the Humane Society of the United States, one might reasonably presume that proceeds from this sale would be funneled, in whole or in part, to him. TTAC’s readers were concerned that Matt Davis was performing a classic “pump and dump”: pretending to be a third party extolling the virtues of a particular product, the sale of which would benefit him. Nowhere in the original story was the link between David and Matt Davis made clear. Nor is “Davis” isn’t exactly a rare name.
It wasn’t that long ago that Autoblog publicly terminated contributor Jeff Glucker for writing an Autoblog article at the paid behest of Nissan. Was this another example of readers being spoon-fed advertising masquerading as editorial content? Time to find out.
I started by calling Bonhams, where I was shunted from voice mailbox to voice mailbox. I left multiple messages last Friday, asking for help. All I wanted to do was confirm whether or not Matt Davis was the owner of any items being auctioned (particularly the “two key items on auction by our assessment”) at the sale. Bonhams refused to talk to me about it, presumably to protect the privacy of the seller.
My next call was to John Neff, the Autoblog editor-in-chief. He didn’t return my call — but his boss, AOL Autos Editor-In-Chief David Kiley, did. Mr. Kiley was forthright about the situation, noting that he had personally inserted a disclaimer into the article after seeing it online. Following our initial conversation, Mr. Kiley rewrote the disclaimer to be more comprenhensive, and the revised disclaimer now appears on the article.
When asked about the genesis of the article — did Davis bring it to the editorial team? — Kiley asserted the reverse: Autoblog editors asked Matt to write it, since he was DED’s son. “We should have put the disclaimer on it when it was first published, but as soon as I saw it, I corrected that, and we are confident that Matt is not profiting from the auction.” At our request, Mr. Kiley contacted Mr. Davis, who is currently in Paris, to confirm.
It strains belief that a man would leave an estate like the one being auctioned and not provide for his son: speaking personally, my son is 31 months old and is already legally set to inherit a veritable cornucopia of stringed, hand-wound, and gasoline-powered junk. Still, at some point one has to make the decision to trust and believe people. If Matt Davis isn’t making a buck from this auction, and that is the position of AOL/Autoblog on this subject, he is certainly acting (in print) like a fellow who stands to benefit quite handsomely.
My last question to Mr. Kiley: Isn’t this pretty much the same thing Jeff Glucker did? Take cash from Autoblog in exchange for the opportunity to sell a product directly to the site’s readers? Not a chance, he responded:
It’s apples and hockey pucks… Matt is not directly profiting from this auction.
Mr. Kiley did not indicate that Autoblog plans to discipline or terminate Mr. Davis as a result of the article. As said article is currently published, with two days left to go before the auction, the connection is plainly drawn in an editorial comment. From AOL’s perspective, that will surely suffice… but we would like to invite Mr. Davis to contact us directly to discuss the matter with our readers. Surely some of our readers would be interested in hearing what Matt has to say about these items: it would just be easier to swallow if we didn’t think we were being sold.