The Pleasure Stops Here
Over at Edmunds.com, automotive journalist Alistair Weaver reckons Dubai's Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road is "The World's Greatest Driving Road." Judging from Marty Padgett's rhapsodic description of Maui's Heavenly Hana Highway, The Car Connection scribe may beg to differ. It's a dual-branded debate. BMW paid for Weaver's wanderings; Volvo footed the bill for Padgett's peregrinations. I'm not saying these corporate subsidies rendered these writers less qualified to choose the world's best tarmac, but neither journalist could make that call without car company cash. In other words, once again, money talks, bullshit walks.
Both Edmunds and The Car Connection neglected to tell their audience that their travelogues were made possible by a grant from a company whose cars were described glowingly therein. I have no qualms with Weaver's assertion that the MINI's "success is a testament to the brilliance of its design." Nor do I quibble with Padgett's assessment that Hawaiian C70 drivers should "bring great music for the C70's top-notch 910-watt audio system." But these stories wouldn't exist without the manufacturers' undeclared interest. Withholding that information from site visitors is unethical.
Fair disclosure: I don't know for sure that BMW or Ford paid for these trips. I've yet to receive an email on the matter, or a statement from either site about their junketeering policy in general. So I'm assuming. This is the same defense I've heard from publications who happily sell junket fruit (i.e. NOT Business Week, Conde Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and the LA and New York Times). One gatekeeper told me straight out that he simply assumes that his readers will make the connection between pay and play, and so be it. Which is a bit like a counterfeiter saying that a store clerk should be able to tell a bogus bill from a real one when they see one.
I've also heard the excuse "we don't have a choice." Which is more or less true. New car launch junketeering is so pervasive that unless a car publication/journalist accepts an all-expenses-paid first-class trip to Spain, South Africa, Arizona, Hawaii or wherever, they won't get Stage One access to the latest whip. (Post-junket, manufacturers cars take about two months to filter down to the local writers.) Buff books and car manufacturers are locked into a symbiotic relationship whose corruption is smothered by the quality of the free surrounds, food and, lest we forget, alcohol.
I find the extension of this jet-set corruption club to web-based media distressing, but not surprising. As eyeballs defect to the net, carmaker cash was bound to follow. Why wouldn't the Mayja Playas work the same scam on web-based automotive journalists that they've employed so successfully on their print-based colleagues? Why shouldn't websites stick their poorly-paid snouts into the same velvet-lined trough? Who really cares if there's an unspoken agreement: you be generally positive and respectful of our products and we'll keep you in the style (and access) to which you've become accustomed?
Word up: the web ain't like that. While carmakers and info corps are busy working the same old, same old, surfers are looking for the real deal. At the risk of repeating myself, buying a car is a big deal. Consumers want the straight shit. And they aren't stupid. They know what that big old Chevy logo blinking at them from the corner of Edmunds.com means. They know what's what when an article waxes lyrically about Hawaii, and then ends with a plug for a Volvo C70. Websites that think they can get away with unacknowledged junketeering will learn that it ain't necessarily so. And by the time they do, it'll be too late.
Meanwhile, I realize that the majority of my colleagues are a lost cause. I don't expect them to buck the system or take the high moral ground or even engage in fair disclosure. So I call on the automotive manufacturers to end this gold-plated junketeering once and for all. Listen up guys: TTAC, Jalopnik and Autoblog's Google rankings, and the increasing relevance of brand-based forums, proves that the rules have changed. Car buyers will find independent information about your products. You can't stop it. You can't co-opt it. So why not go with the flow? Less philosophically, ending the junketeering practice will give you far more bang-for-the-buck.
Ditch the Dubai and Hawaiian feeding frenzies. Release new cars to the regional press fleets. The buff books will find a way to keep their customers. You'll save a huge amount of money AND get blanket coverage. And here's another idea: lend your cars to web-active automotive alphas. If your products are good enough, you'll get the kind of groundswell of honest, untainted opinion that sells cars in this, the new millennia.
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