If you’ve ever had a friend or relative who was both eager and nervous to show off a painting, piece of music or other creative work (“Tell me what you really think. Don’t sugarcoat it.” Who hasn’t heard that one before), then you’ll understand how PR people must feel when they’re tasked with introducing a new vehicle.
While your budding-actor-buddy may cajole you into attending his experimental theater show, PR types do things a bit differently; they just have to book a hotel and then invite every single person with an online presence. Journalist from a major outlet? Welcome, sir! Amateur sex blogger? Here’s your plane ticket! Cram them all in! If they can operate a keyboard to amuse an audience, they can come along. It’s gotten to the point where some press trips have you arrive in the morning, with four hours set to drive and take photographs, and then it’s already back to the airport for you. This way, the host also saves on bar bills.
Contrary to popular belief, there also is no advance briefing for newbies to only write good things. The reason is very simple; You don’t need it. Here’s an example. I love motorcycle riding. So when there was an uninterrupted layer of snow on my street (to the point where I was able to get my snowboard out and turn it into an impromptu downhill run) I really began suffering from an extreme form of PMS (parked motorcycle syndrome). I had the bluest balls a bike rider can have. The bike in question (a 600 Kawasaki Ninja with a delightful Lucy Liu squint) couldn’t even be considered just “parked” any more. It was buried. As I wallowed in my misery by watching fresh snow fall from my balcony, I received a message from Berlin; “Want to go ride a BMW in South Africa? Gimme a call at the office. Pronto.”
I obeyed. I went to South Africa. I rode. On my return, a friend at Honda was very interested. “How was the new BMW?” he asked. I looked at him for moment and answered: “It’s February. My street is full of snow. For all I know, my motorcycle is also full of snow now. I rode the BMW in glorious summer weather in a wonderful country. How do you think it was? It was perfect, of course. The best bike I have ridden in a very long time.”
Manufacturers have nothing to fear. Everyone will love driving around no matter what is on offer. In a few days, Toyota will let me have a go with their GT86 (marketed as a Scion in the States). At the Nurburgring. Guess what; It will be great. And by “it” I mean the experience, which you cannot separate from the surroundings. They could send me around the track in an otherwise stiflingly boring Toyota Borreliosis 1.6 automatic station wagon and I still would have a blast.
All that talk about “ringers”, specially prepared press vehicle with more power, better handling and cushier interiors, isn’t true either. It doesn’t have to be. When Aprilia showed the world the first batch of their superbike RSV4, most of the piston rods broke. Didn’t matter. In Italy, nobody lost a word about it in any publication. It’s simple behavioral science. If you, as a human being, are invited to a gorgeous locale, put up in a nice room, fed wonderful food and wonderful drinks and a chance to run wild with a beautiful machine, you will respond in kind. It’s easy to hold back, partly because cars are at a level now where there nearly aren’t any really bad ones left, but mostly because you can always say to yourself “Well, I only logged four hours in this. Seems hardly fair to hate it already. Especially since they were such a nice bunch of people…”
This expands from inviting somebody to just giving somebody something. If I give you a car, you will have some amount of good will towards me, simply because a car represents a significant value: “Not everyone gets a car, you know, and we at
Cadillac Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. love your work, man, we really do and we think this CTS-V wagon Superleggera version will ensure you’ll write nice things about other GM products and slag our competitors fits perfectly into your perfect weblog.” What will you write? Something nice, I assure you. I work for both sides. I produce texts for magazines, but I also produce texts or think of activities for manufacturers to use in advertising (these two sides of work are much more similar than you might think). So I can give the advice I got a long time ago: Be nice and give them your products. Don’t tell them what to do, because they will do what you want anyway: They will write about it and they will almost exclusively write nice things. It’s free PR.
Free PR also means that even TTAC gets a press car. “Yes, Mr. Baruth, whatcha say about having a go at the Nürburgring? You are the best for this, I just love your fashion sense. I’ve even ordered my own golden jacket.” The reason not everyone sees it like this is insecurity or pride or a number of other human emotions that get in the way of efficient conduct in press and PR. Ferrari is notorious for being mortally offended by anything less than extreme superlatives. In Germany, Porsche is so loved (and worshipped even) that they are truly astonished if someone doesn’t write that their car is “perfect”. Volkswagen PR is a crass control freak. There is a guy at Daimler who seems to dislike some publications for reasons only he knows. I could extend the list all the way to the bottom of your scrollbar. There is an element of deterrence in this, of course. One of the biggest fears for a motoring publication is not (or no longer) being invited to press events. Because of that, they print extremely boring stuff of such low originality that a machine could do the same and pass the Turing test. This is still free PR, but it’s no longer very remarkable or very viral, which is bad. The PR people in these examples could do much better for their company by remembering what they learned in school: There still is no such thing as bad publicity.
Let’s take BMW again. The Bavarians are a confident people and the company reflects this. I once did a whole article about the best-selling bike in Europe (BMW R 1200 GS) just to get under their skin. It is a good bike, but I just don’t like it, which is a pointlessly evil reason to write, albeit a very fun one. I compared a new GS to my old Aprilia RSV Mille, a repeatedly crashed Frankenstein monster of a track whore, and the Bimmer lost — badly. The readers loved it (or wrote bitter letters). BMW didn’t even comment. The article had no influence on anything. I also recently did an article about why Audis traditionally drive like they have a dung heap on the bonnet. Shortly thereafter, Audi showed me around their R&D facilities for a later article and everything was just König Ludwig. These companies know they have good products and they also seem to know something hard to accept: A scathing review people talk about is much better PR than the standard mediocre fluff the readers’ brains immediately chuck into the sea of forgetfulness. Confidence is the best thing PR can have.
So now you know why there are practically no evil articles written from press trips. But you also know what to do if you create something to sell yourself and need free PR: Give it to as many people you can afford to. And don’t worry. Be confident.
If you want to know how advertising in the motor industry works, write to Clemens. He might get around to explaining it.
Clemens Gleich is an evil communist Nazi goosestepper who writes for money in Germany. You can find his propaganda central at www.mojomag.de.