General Motors Death Watch 2: Dan Neil Takes A Bullet
Unbelievable. GM’s lost the plot, they’re losing the game and now they want to take their ball and go home. After automotive critic Dan Neil ripped apart the new Pontiac G6 GT and called for an executive putsch, The General pulled its $10M adspend out of the Los Angeles Times. While you can’t begrudge GM’s right to place—or not place—its money where it chooses, the decision to pull the plug on the Times displays an unappealing combination of arrogance and petulance. To wit: GM spokesfolk defended their action by saying that the review (and other GM-related coverage) contained “factual errors and misrepresentations”—without providing any specifics. So there. Nuh.
GM’s version of The Wizard of Oz‘ “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” routine is good for a few laughs. It’s always fun to watch the rich and powerful act like victims. Nevertheless, it’s a worrying situation. The General’s muscle-flexing will certainly have a dampening effect on the already obsequious US automotive press. The ripples will be felt from the biggest buff books to the smallest local supplements. Even the blogosphere and ad-free sites like this one will sense the heat (if nothing else, we depend on manufacturers for access to test models). With the threat of retribution lingering in the air like sulfurous gas, the truth is bound to suffer even greater indignities.
The press’ silence on this story is deafening. Ironically, this lack of coordinated response actually works against the automotive media; leading the public to the not-so-wrong conclusion that lapdoggery towards the big advertisers is the norm. I’ve said it before: the press’ greatest asset, perhaps its only asset, is its credibility. If the car media doesn’t stand up for Neil, if they don’t defend the principles which they claim govern their profession, they risk losing their readers’ respect, and thus, affections.
At the same time, GM’s vindictiveness will hurt GM’s bottom line. The move against the LA Times catapulted Neil’s column out of pistonhead backwaters into the national consciousness. By doing so, it focused yet more attention on the generally piss-poor performance of GM products vis-à-vis their competitors, as well as the likelihood that the General may axe two entire divisions. Buyers who’ve long suspected that domestic automakers try to hide their products’ mediocrity behind a wall of hype and ad spend—consumers who don’t want to buy a car from a brand that might disappear—now have even more reason to shop Toyota.
GM’s assumption that the general public would side with big business in a fight against a lone (not to say rogue) journalist also raises serious doubts about the company’s understanding of PR. The proper response to Neil’s criticisms was obvious: demand that the Times publish a detailed refutation of the charges leveled against the company and the G6 GT. At the very least, when GM pulled their ads, their objections should have been made clear. But no. As far as the public is concerned, GM’s action was designed to punish the Times for doing what newspapers are supposed to do: report the truth. News flash to GM brass: people LIKE newspapers. And they don’t like bullies.
Of course, GM couldn’t really offer a point-by-point reply to Neil’s review because the G6 sucks. Oh wait, Neil didn’t say that. With uncharacteristic reserve, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic called the G6 “uncompetitive.” If GM doesn’t agree with this assessment, if they can’t read their own sales figures and come to the same conclusion, they are in deep, deep denial. At the risk of sounding as obvious as an alcoholic’s friend during an intervention, lashing out at the LA Times doesn’t change anything. The G6 is still mediocre. GM is still in deep shit. The General’s assertion that it’s being unjustly persecuted doesn’t make it so.
Both domestic carmakers and car hacks need to wise-up. Until and unless the automotive press puts their readers’ interests first, advertisers will have them over a barrel. Until and unless GM faces the truth about its products, they will keep making boneheaded, self-defeating and futile attempts to protect their increasingly illusory reputation. Meanwhile, send firstname.lastname@example.org an email. Let him know that his short-term prospects are a lot better than GM’s.
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