By on December 8, 2009

It ain't easy being sleazy... (
The following is a piece called “What We Wear” by Alex Law, reprinted from the Automobile Journalist Association of Canada’s November 27 “Mini Newsletter.”

Word that AJAC has actually launched a set of branded clothes struck me as quite meaningful, since the long history of the auto writing trade is to wear clothes with other people’s names.

It must be noted that Dave Booth, Jim Kenzie and I discussed a variation on this idea about a decade back, but it was limited to one of those jackets you see on people in a rock band. Our idea was to design a Car Guys World Tour jacket, with a map of the globe on the back. The first time you visited a particular city, you could sew a star on its location on the jacket in commemoration. Visit Moscow and put a star on its spot on the jacket, and so on. Ironically, we were traveling too much to make it happen.

But getting clothes from auto firms has been going on for as long as I’ve been in the business, a term which recently passed 30 years. According to a usually reliable source (Hi, Walt), the car companies only went to jackets, shirts and hats because in the 1960s the gift thing was getting out of hand. In the early days of auto journalism, the gifts would sometimes include appliances, such as fridges.

Now, somewhere in deepest Milton or in a four-star hotel in Xanadu or some such place, Jim Kenzie is reading this and wishing he could interrupt me to tell his story about the inexperienced Volvo PR man, but he can’t because I’m going to. This is only fair, as we have been stealing each other’s stories for years. Ask him to tell you about my worst experience with a copy editor. And for you Internet folks, a copy editor is someone who checks your story for errors before it appears.

Maybe 20 years back, Volvo brought a new guy into its European PR staff. He was smart and all those good things, but he did not know that the protocol there at the time was that you put the media agenda for the program on the gift in the hotel rooms. He realized his mistake the next morning, when a line of smiling hacks from all over Europe came down to check out with a TV under their arms.

The closest thing to a flap about gift clothes happened in Atlanta in the late 1980s. But you have to go back a year to North Carolina to appreciate the situation better, when GM had a program for its Buick-Olds-Cadillac division in the famous Greenbrier Hotel. At the time that immense, rambling structure was known purely as a golf destination, its secret life as a gigantic bunker for the U.S. government in the 1950s was as then unknown. Really. Bing it on the web. Anyway, we all got an ugly green Greenbrier Resort sweater when we checked in, and the PR people soon made it clear that they’d made no effort to guess our sizes. Take it back to the gift shop, they said, and get the size you want, or, you know, exchange it for something you liked better. My memory is that nearly all the sweaters went back in favour of something else.

So the next year, in a resort on Lake Lanier, Georgia, the BOC people cut to the chase and issued gift certificates for the gift shop or the pro shop at the golf course. Only you had to sign the gift certificates, and this struck a lot of people as a very bad thing, so no gifts were taken home. Ugly sweaters as currency is one thing, apparently, but a piece of paper with a dollar sign ($50 US) and your signature is something else.

BOC took note of this the next year and arranged for everyone to get a pair of Foot-Joys running shoes, with people on hand to measure your feet so the custom-fitted beauties would fit perfectly when they arrived at your home a few weeks later. They were great shoes, which I wore out on more press trips.

This chain of events got Jim and I to talking about gift clothes shortly thereafter, and he started to bemoan the fact that it was always jackets, shirts and hats, jackets, shirts and hats, jackets, shirts and hats, with a pair of gloves or shoes every now and then. This helped him keep his clothes’ budget low, he admitted, but he was trying to think of something that would relieve him of the need to buy pants, socks and underwear.

His idea was that the car companies across Canada should figure out how much they planned to spend on gift clothes every year and contribute that to a fund that would be apportioned to auto writers on an individual basis. That way, we would easily get enough to pay all of our clothing requirements, even though we would have order bespoke tailoring. After all, gift clothes always include the car company’s name or logo, so Jim figured that all of the shirts and jackets we had made would come with a Velcro patch on the chest, so that we could affix the appropriate logo depending upon whose program we were attending. When we wore the clothes away from a car event, Jim suggested, we should use a patch that advertised his band.

This seemed like an excellent idea to me, but I worried that it would be too hard for the car companies to agree on how it would work. My solution was simpler: we would find clothing items or other things that we really liked and tell the car companies about them for future use. Thus was the notion of The Graft Registry born.

Feel free to use the idea now, if you want. From what I hear, the shirts, jackets, hats and USB memory sticks are starting to build up.

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10 Comments on “The Challenges Of Automotive Journalism...”

  • avatar

    Bing it on the web
    Does anyone who doesn’t work for Microsoft, directly or indirectly, use “Bing” as a verb?
    Now, that said, this article could have been posted on Metacars.  And I say that as a good thing.

  • avatar

    Ha! Like I’ve seen in other professions, free swag ultimately leads to a kind of contempt directed at the swaggers from the swaggees.

  • avatar

    The Greenbrier is in West Virginia, not North Carolina. (speaking of copy editors checking facts, and such).

  • avatar

    That’s the thing, Bing isn’t a verb yet. It’s a stupid name. At least Google makes some sense. I’ve used Bing maybe 5 times and it was only because Google wasn’t responding immediately. MS is trying to force Bing into our brains, but I think it’s got fail written all over it. Much like GM and Chrysler.
    Also, awesome stories from Alex Law. Used to read his stuff years ago in the London Free Press. Now I read occasional stuff from him on the Toronto Star site.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Time for management to renew its pledge that nobody writing for TTAC will be bought without full disclosure.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The expensive gifts are hiding in plain sight. They are the complimentary first class travel to exotic locales, five star hotels and dining, and the free use of automobiles.

  • avatar

    What? No car keys taped under your chairs?

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    The sad bit is that pretty much all the clothes coming from car manufacturers really badly undermine the brand of cars they are supposed to support. Sure enough, some of the Porsche clothing is OK and of good quality but not spectacular for the price. Most of the rest is simply embarassing. The single company, which to my knowledge managed to make a viable clothes business based on their existing motorcycle / car business is KTM – where you get many people who don’t even consider riding a bike or don’t even like the biking culture going to KTM outlets simply for the clothes.

  • avatar

    Jumps up, raises hand, flexes knees to display vertical repetitive motion while bellowing……
    “I KNOW WHAT TO DO!!!!”
    Grab that mentioned jacket. No need for a world map.
    Bring back those smaller bumper and window stickers so common back in the 50s and 60s showing various destination/arrival spots……  attractions, cities and states, etc.
    Place said stickers upon one’s jacket and display one’s travels and maintain the “auto theme” by mimicking a 66 Buick bumper.

  • avatar

    I love when they give little cars…now that is something worth collecting (i have quite a few but nothing near the world record), especially VW, they have some very good quality detailing on their little models. all i got from Porsche was 4 pencils and a hat… i heard some people on other Porsche trips got some Porsche design jackets… not that i was very upset, but i would like to have that cool jacket, and I’m not paying a few hundred bucks for it just because it has Porsche embroidered on the sleeve.
    But my favorite part of the press trips are the location in most cases. getting to drive some neat cars on some of the world’s most amazing roads is something i take  any-day over a fridge, TV, pencil or even a much needed new laptop…
    I for one am in the business for the cars and the driving and wanting to share the experience, the trips and drives are the core, the gifts are just something to give to the office staff (soon it will be the kids) as a souvenir when i get back…unless i need that particular object…of course I’m human after all

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