Car And Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Automobile: America's Buff Books Laid Low
Whenever a new medium appears, it frees the old one to reinvent itself. When TV arrived, radio dropped soap operas, fragmented its audience and developed new formats (e.g. talk radio). Now that the internet’s here, magazines are free to evolve. Only someone forgot to tell the magazines. Take Car and Driver (C&D) and Road & Track (R&T). Someone should. With sinking circulation and disappearing ad dollars, the car mags (and their buff book brethren) are up against the wall. Rather than pursue creative reinvention, their owners have embarked on a by-now-familiar strategy: whoring themselves.
Automotive News reports that Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. is looking to their recently launched "virtual test drive” (VTD) web feature to generate significant revenue. These multi-media sales spiels now sit above the C&D and R&T’s websites’ fold, inside the third column (normally reserved for in-house editorial). Surfers click on the box to “explore today’s hottest cars and trucks in our new manufacturer sponsored area.” So far, the VTD’s include the Chevy Silverado and the Ford Edge.
Once the pop-up window launches, there’s no further indication that the be-logoed content is editorially compromised. And compromised it is. Host and former race car driver Tommy Kendall showers the vehicles with unadulterated love. Equally damning, Kendall quotes the magazine's editors liberally on the vehicles’ positive aspects– which also appears as published text. For example, we learn that the Silverado’s “bed length is a Goldilocks-esque situation.”
The VTD is a logical replacement for/complement to C&D and R&T’s “Special Advertising Sections.” These manufacturer-sponsored magazines-within-magazines “review” new vehicles using the buff books’ well-established look and feel. In both cases, the publisher is happy to blur the line between independent editorial content and paid-for content dressed up to look like independent editorial content.
Clearly, the VTD is nothing more than another attempt to sell the car mags’ [remaining] editorial credibility to the highest bidder. Hachette Vice President Robert Ames doesn’t see it that way. He defended the virtual test drive by claiming that they don't contradict anything written by the magazines' reviewers. "If the editorial staff has said that the vehicle is overweight, we'll never say it's light," Ames told Automotive News. "We'll focus on other aspects of the vehicle on behalf of the consumer."
Ames’ implication– that the VTD is in the consumer’s best interest– is curious, given that they’re charging the automakers $250k per segment. Any suggestion that the buff books’ advertorials are somehow quarantined behind a Chinese wall seems equally dubious, given Stephan Wilkinson’s revelations about advertisers’ power over Car and Driver's editorial choices.
Actually, it’s worse than that. Next week, Hachette Filipacchi Media’s U.S. CEO Jack Kliger will team up with top execs at his dead tree rivals to bring a big ass begging bowl to Detroit automakers. Automotive News says the rag tag army of glossy rag providers will call upon no less a personage than Mark LaNeve, General Motors' North American marketing chief. There’s bound to be talk of VTD's and "onserts"– the aforementioned advertorial “brochures” bagged with mags.
There the media mavens will stand, Canute-like, commanding the retreating tide of ad bucks to stop. More accurately, they’ll sell their souls for a percentage of the hundreds of millions of dearly departed dollars fleeing trad mags for the “new media.”
The Devil will demand his due: lay off our products. Those words may not be uttered– until later. There’s no getting around the fact that Car and Driver and Road & Track, as well as Motor Trend and Automobile (which are also launching VTD’s), are sinking deeper and deeper into editorial prostitution.
According to Brock Yates, you can already see it in Car and Driver’s basic structure. Yates told me that Editor-in-Chief Csabe Csere’s reliance on comparison testing allows the magazine to compare “relative merit” with “the occasional mild poke” rather than “take a good hard look at any one car” and “kick its ass when it deserves it.”
As we’ve said before, these are not trivial matters. An automobile is the average American’s second largest purchase, after their house. It accounts for a large amount of their annual expenditure. Its relative safety is a matter of life and death. When car magazines sacrifice their editorial independence on the altar of corporate profit, they clearly demonstrate in whose interests they ultimately act, and it ain’t you.
Of course, all of this is good news for Consumer Reports and independent automotive websites like The Truth About Cars (TTAC).
As TTAC embarks upon its latest reinvention (due within a week), you can rest assured that this website will never violate our readers' trust. You may not like or agree with our opinions, but as long as I remain the site's publisher, advertisers will not shade, color or dictate our editorial choices. By the same token, until and unless the buff books regain their independent voice, they will continue their long slide into mediocrity and irrelevance.
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