The NY Auto Show: Hell No, We Won't Go
I'll never forget the billboard looming over London's Hammersmith flyover. At the exact point where drivers suddenly confront the endless congestion ahead, a teleconferencing company asked 'Is this journey really necessary?' I'd like to put the same question to the harried hacks covering The New York International Automobile Show– at the exact moment they hear the stilted cadences of The VP of Marketing for Generic Sedans enter the twenty-third minute of his presentation. And what say you show goers, as those circulation-constricting swag bags help transform your "visit" into a Bataan Death March? Is your Odyssean journey really essential?
Don't get me wrong. Auto shows aren't going to die. As long auto execs need to compare stand sizes with unaffiliated colleagues; they'll be there. As long as cherished dealer principals need to feel proud, special and drunk; they'll be there. As long as pistonheads need a happy place where they're not considered nerds, where they can touch, feel and smell the obscure objects of their desire; they'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating' up a guy– no seriously, the human desire for real, honest-to-bad-breath social interaction guarantees that the auto show is with us to stay.
But social interaction ain't what it used to be, and neither is The Big Show. The days when they provided a back room bacchanalia for white men in dark suits, or a cherished father son bonding experience, are gone; replaced by political correctness and Gran Turismo 4. The Internet has changed everything. If gaining attention for a new vehicle is the question, cyberspace is the answer. If you're a media maven or rivet counter seeking a new whip fix, the web is to car spotting what a CAT scanner is to a neurologist. Even without considering the cost of an auto show stand or the expense of going to one, the Internet is 175% more efficient than the current bricks and mortar motoring ho'-down.
In ten years' time, defenders of today's auto show format will sound like those nostalgic nutcases who assert that radio drama is an unappreciated art form. Meanwhile, sensible people have to suffer mystical statements about the irreproducible benefits of seeing a new car 'in the flesh'– as opposed to clocking it via crystal clear digital photography or reasonable quality video. We'll also have to endure endless paeans to the value of face time and the 'gathering of the tribes'– as if high school reunions weren't ugly enough. The truth is, putting pistonheads and purveyors together in the same place at the same time for an endless series of new product launches and miles of static displays only makes both groups feel… unappreciated.
Fortunately for those of you reading this rant on your laptop in Jacob Javits' bowels– I mean in the bowels of The Jacob K Javits Convention Center– the modern car show is not an either/or reality/Internet situation. For every live human being sucking-up recirculated air in JKJ's cavernous confines, there are 10,000 surfers harvesting the heavy metal fruit of the auto blogging brigade. If the organizers of The New York auto show could suck a buck from every one of the web heads who check in on their vapid display of automobiles-in-aspic, they'd make enough money to pay for post-traumatic show disorder therapy– for everyone!
You don't have to be a dotrepreneur to realize that people around the globe would pay a reasonable fee to 'attend' an auto show from the comfort of their computer. A monopoly on the event's web rights– live web cam coverage, instant access to new photo galleries, on-road video and specs; forums, chat-rooms, IM interviews, etc.– could be worth a fortune. Hundreds of thousands of E-visitors would pay– either directly or through advertising– for the privilege of not going to the 'actual' show. The inappropriately-named independent media would scream bloody murder, but car manufacturers would conclude, rightly, that the spin starts here, with maximum content control.
At some point, the big e-auto shows will start to resemble professional sports, with only the die-hards bearing the cost and inconvenience of physical attendance. That said, fantasy cars aren't football; whether there'd be enough hard core shmoozers and show goers to justify the mondo auto show's astronomical rents and high-priced tickets is an open question. In fact, dwindling attendance has already liberated the London/Birmingham auto shows from their inner-city amphitheaters, fragmenting the event into smaller eventlettes. With less expensive and more accommodating venues, UK exhibitors are now doing really wild and crazy stuff to entertain the faithful– like demonstrating vehicles in motion.
Thanks to the Internet, it's a brave new world. Well, new. Making the switch from today's big ass car shows– a dead genre expense accounting– to tomorrow's smaller and/or virtual get-togethers will require both vision and courage. Either that or an auto exec who's had one steamed hot dog too many.
[For a look at the mutations to come, visit www.autoshowinmotion.com]
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