By on January 10, 2012

We all ran by them this morning on the way to the Fusion introduction. Two signs. One sign said, “FORD PRESS EVENT”. The sign below it said “SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCERS”. The arrow pointed a different way. Who are “social media influencers”, anyway?

What was the “Volt Lounge”, and why were so many prominent auto-related Twitterati spending time there today instead of walking the NAIAS show floor?

The photo above is a plane that reportedly left Detroit tonight. Why did Audi reportedly feel the need to fly dozens of bloggers from NAIAS to CES, at their expense?

We’ve complained about this on TTAC before, but on a day where we have seen so many newsworthy new cars, it’s important to remind all of you that a lot of the “news” is bought and paid for. General Motors and Ford both spent obscene amounts of money to fly “social media influencers” to Detroit from all over the world. The way these bloggers experience Detroit is very different from the way the TTAC crew did. They are herded from place to place, given talking points, and relentlessly groomed to Tweet and blog only the most flattering and sponsor-centric information. “Insider events” make sure that the GM bloggers, for example, didn’t see the plug-in Fusion — and the Ford bloggers were nowhere in evidence when the new Hyundais hit the ground. Instead, a group of mostly young, handsome, and gregarious PR people ensure that only the most profitable news reaches the ears of their impressionable charges.

Meanwhile, Audi apparently chartered an entire Boeing 737 to make sure “lifestyle” bloggers went straight from the new Q3 Vail to the newest disposable electronic garbage in Vegas. Lincoln’s introducing the new MKZ in the morning, and it’s aimed right at the Audi A4 — but for the Audi charter crew, that car’s invisible. Meanwhile, Ford’s blogger babies will be Tweeting Revolutionary Em Kay Zee News All Morning. It’s modern American politics writ in automotive steel: ignore the contrasting choices, pick a team, be loyal rather than curious.

As we did last year, TTAC is calling on all compensated bloggers to trumpet that fact loud and clear at the BEGINNING of their coverage, not in a italicized end disclaimer. If your view of the world’s most important auto show was through a marketing glass darkly, let your followers know.

Now it’s time for the TTAC team disclaimers:

  • Jack Baruth drove a Lincoln Town Car with 73,920 miles to the event. He accepted no alcohol or food from manufacturers and paid his own bills.
  • Ronnie Schreiber paid his own way and is a native Detroiter.
  • The Speed:Sport:Life crew flew from Houston, TX and Washington, DC at their own expense, paid their own way, and did not accept any manufacturer benefits on Day One of the show while covering the event for TTAC.
  • Derek Kreindler stayed home in Toronto because his girlfriend is gorgeous and he didn’t want to play pickup ball.
  • Bertel Schmitt monitored our activity from the secret Chinese moon base nearest internet cafe.

Who paid for the coverage you are reading? You did, by clicking on all those great ads. What? You haven’t clicked on an ad? Get clicking!

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41 Comments on “Babysitting Bloggers: How GM, Ford, Audi and Others Are Twisting The Coverage You’re Reading...”

  • avatar

    Hmmmm…. *click*

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    I was wondering about the dual NAIAS/CES week and how coverage would be handled by the combined blogs where many authors perform double and triple duty. Thank you very much for pointing out just how they can afford to be in 2 places almost at once.

    I had to visit a few other pages to add some more clicks this evening: seeing the United ad on this page was entirely too transparent, even had I not read Kornbluth and Pohl’s eerily prescient collaborative novel.

  • avatar

    Who are these “Social Media Influencers”? Are there that many car blogs out there with audiences large enough to influence? Are they “names” who sit around Twittering for profit? I heard Lindsay Lohan, for example, was paid to Tweet. How do you become one? I’m setting here at 11:00 p.m. in a housecoat, typing this on TTAC, I might as well become a “Social Media Influencer” and run around on other people’s nickle.

  • avatar

    Okay. Just clicked on an ad. May that nickel help contribute to more great posts like this one!

    Now, what do I have to do to get on a 737 for free? Better yet, where do I sign up to babysit the mommy bloggers and “influential” Twitter blogger babies?

  • avatar

    It’s plain simple. You get good press by placing big ads and doing nice events for journalists. But the game has changed. Before buying a car you crawl the web and read blogs and stuff if the ride is a lemon. Social media influencers don’t require that much money. They’re happy with NAIAS tickets, a mediocre hotel and a one day test drive. No million dollar campain, just a chartered 737. The bloggers (and writers of comments) are truly easy to convince by your brand … they don’t ask for tickets or roadshow invitations, they get them secretly from Lefty. You are one of the chosen few! Amongst them you find the wannabee journalists being in the game for the champagne and the “look at me, I’m the word of mouth leader in my community”. And you find those guys being in the game … for the truth about cars ;) +1 for your transparency. If anybody wants to be on guestlists: choose your favourite brand or technology, use the same nick name everywhere in blogs and chats and forums or run a blog on your own, write a lot, become an influencer, try to be an evangelist with a slightly biased approach … and wait until social media monitoring software finds you.

    • 0 avatar

      >and wait until social media monitoring software finds you.

      In Russia, one doesn’t find social media monitoring software – social media monitoring software finds YOU!

  • avatar

    > The photo above is a plane that reportedly left Detroit tonight. Why did Audi reportedly feel the need to fly dozens of bloggers from NAIAS to CES, at their expense?

    Because that’s the way the game is played these days…

  • avatar

    Jack, you’re a good man and we dig TTAC, but it’s time to throttle back, hoss. The everybody’s-a-whore-but-us bit is starting to sound shrill. Suggestion: Pivot to content, content, content.

    • 0 avatar

      I dunno, I find it interesting. It’s a whistle that needs to be blown.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree and disagree – yesterday’s negativeness was getting a bit tiring. That said, I think pointing some of this type of thing out is critical. Keep the cars about the cars, then provide some of this commentary, separately.

    • 0 avatar
      PJ McCombs

      I’m of two minds as well. The “bit” may reach a saturation point, but the actual insight is fascinating. One simply assumes this stuff is in play with the field’s general decline in quality, but it’s awfully interesting to see pics of the actual chartered 737 on the tarmac.

    • 0 avatar

      Hmm – I find TTAC’s take on the rest of the autojouno world to be pretty interesting insight. Anyone who has worked in a scrappy startup or played for a scrappy team knows the value in praising your strengths and continually hammering at the competition’s weak points.

      I think that we are entering a period of authenticity where peoples bullsh!t meters are finely honed and we know pretty well when we’re getting played. TTAC is a breath of fresh air in this regard.

      As for Audi and CES: really, Audi? I thought you were a bit more saavy than that. CES has been a joke for years and nobody outside of the shills who work for the major electronics manufacturers pays a lick of attention to it any longer. Anybody who is doing anything even *remotely* cutting edge avoids CES like the plague.

    • 0 avatar

      One question and one comment.

      Question. Are TTAC’s writers in fact journalists? Regardless of what you think of their opinions, TTAC’S provides as much opinion and interpretation as anything else. I would argue that they are commentators that discuss and opine about the auto industry. To me, the fact that may of the staff here spend some of their time “cross promoting” their own sites is a big factor that tips the journalist/commentator scallew for me.

      Comment. I find it a bit ironic that Jack calls out writers for putting this disclaimers in italics at the bottom of their pieces when that is how TTAC staff does it in their reviews. Perhaps I’m missing the tongue-in-cheek since my coffe hasn’t kicked in yet.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth


        In a situation where it’s commonly understood that the manufacturer is involved (new car previews, press loaners) we put the disclosure at the end.

        If Porsche ever pays for my flight to Geneva, I will disclose that in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS right up front.

  • avatar

    Jack, Nvidia’s head said yesterday that they would have an announcement with Audi in a few days. I don’t know more.

  • avatar

    >>The photo above is a plane that reportedly left Detroit tonight. Why did Audi reportedly feel the need to fly dozens of bloggers from NAIAS to CES, at their expense?

    I don’t know, but that jet is going to get some hop-ons.

  • avatar

    Just as everyone has unique fingerprints, everybody has an opinion. The problem with social media as I see it is when you put yourself out there for all the world to see, a herd mentality begins to form and for those trying to be individualistic, they conform to the seeming majority. Just like the “non-conformist” hippies of a generation-and-a-half ago, same thing. We all want to belong and nobody wants to feel left out, lest we be exiled by those with stronger opinions.

    Me? this site and Curbside Classic are the only blog, or “social media” sites I find worthy of my time. Beyond that, I visit car showrooms and our annual auto show for any hands-on closer looks at cars I may be interested in.

    Truth is, this is what is used at present for immediate advertising results for as long as it is believed to be effective. Time will tell.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Ah yes, it’s the hairshirt of journalism. Good news, kids. Things haven’t changed. Really. They haven’t changed one bit. The big difference is who wears the feedbag these days.

    You guys screwed the pooch, but here’s how to redeem yourselves. When you see who these “Social Media Influencers” are, ask ’em some basics such as, “Who are you?” and “Whom do you blog for?” You don’t even have to use the dative case on that one, by the way.

    Then apply butter. Lots and lots of butter with comments like, “Wow, you guys must be REALLY good.” And, “Wow, can I follow you on Twitter?”

    Then let us know. For the most part, the “Social Media Influencers” are really only “reporting” on a quasi-jet-set lifestyle. That’s probably the story, and it’s a co-branded stroke-job marketing-opportunity.

    If I was a betting man, I’d bet that if one were to ask enough questions to the right people, you’d find a trail that leads back to the sorts of outfits who put together goodie bags for celebs who stroll the red carpets of Hollywood.

    Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second here. The Detroit autoshow is a carefully orchestrated publicity event. It’s not news, except for the very small percent of the population who actually give a crap about how cars drive. To everybody else, it’s just pretty colors and a $300 to $400 per month payment plan.

  • avatar

    Regardless of what the “babysitters” of the bloggers (and more mainstream websites and publications) are saying or doing, most of the writing that I have read is simply creatively (or not so creatively) regurgitated press release copy.

  • avatar

    To be fair to Derek, you’re looking at a solid 5 hours to drive to Windsor, and the 401 is BORING once you clear Kitchener. Then you’ve got to get on the bus, get probed by border guards, etc.

    Plus, gas is $5/gallon up here, so it’s totally impossible to drive anywhere, and our economy has collapsed.

  • avatar

    Dammit, I have been told I am socially influential about stuff but I didn’t get invited. I must be doing this wrong.

  • avatar

    Jalopnik didn’t even attend because they’ve found new things to write about, like Ketchup packets.

    At least they’ve nearly found a way to sort of render most of their site entirely with Javascript.

  • avatar

    Thankfully, I don’t get my news from social media. Social media is just for talking about myself.

  • avatar

    I go to Edmunds Inside Line an for a 6 month period there were Buick Regal or Chevy Cruze review in the rotating assembly. When you look at the article and don’t catch the small disclaimer that tells you it is a special advertisement – and click on it you assume Edmunds wrote this.

    This is the same trick OEMs use in magazines to disguise advertisements as editorials. This is on top of how OEMs lobby the writers with perks and free stuff. When any reviewers accept any free perks (let alone disclose it in their piece) I assume it affected the impartiality of their article and cannot overcome the appearance of such and stop reading. I then will remember that writer accepts these things often and stop reading their work completely.

  • avatar

    There are problems with both sides of the argument for and against the pandering relationship between journalists and the automotive press. There was a column earlier about how certain manufacturers won’t even let you INSIDE a new car (Porsche) unless you’ve adequately kissed their asses praising their brand and product.

    I have no doubts that a manufacturer would spend good time and money not only maximize the fluffed up bull about their new product, but minimize the negative press. If the Soviets have taught us anything, it’s not just that you want to control the praise, but minimize (or squelch) the dissent. I can also see why certain “press” outlets would whore themselves out as reviewing the newest rental-grade Camry and quoting performance figures on the Prius V is nowhere near as sexy as having the newest Bentley on their site…

    The problem with all of this, is that it makes many people cynical or indifferent when we assume that EVERY automotive reporter has an auto PR execs hand up his butt, making his lips move. A 5 car comparison usually turns into an arbitrary ranking with the first place finisher often going to the biggest donor and the other 4 placing so close to each other that they’re all essentially within second place, with only one sacrificial marque making dead last to give the impression of a fair test.

    We as consumers only find out a car is shit on the test drive or in the first year of ownership (and let’s not even get to Car and Driver downplaying serious quality F-ups during their 40k mile tests).

  • avatar

    dont fret TTAC, this is the signal that social media will now be dead. Once Companies start mucking around like this, they will trash social media as we know it and Im all for it. Then these companies will turn back to you and you’ll get your free swag and meals again. Sucks to be pushed aside like this doesnt it. Maybe you should consider this when the site starts its bashing posts on UAW or whoever or whatever brand. Just sayin….

    Oh did you happen to see the large Kool-aid trucks dispensing some strange liquid in the back of Cobo?

  • avatar

    Someone needs to start a cafe called “Secret Chinese Moon Base”. That’s a brilliant idea waiting to happen. Kudos to all the TTAC editors for journalistic integrity. Just because media is moving into a more decentralized and smaller groups, doesn’t mean that it should degrade into glorified product placement ads.

    Keep up the great work!

  • avatar

    To answer the question about Audis reasons for the plane (which, btw took me all of 2 minutes of googling to find out):

    Audi is showing future in-car-infotainment solutions, new MMI / Audi Connect thingies, have announced their cooperation with NVidia and, most importantly, have had the world-premiere of the next-gen A3 interior there today.

    And do we really know (seeing the many “reportedlies” in your entry, if this was a plane chartered solely for the task of transporting bloggers? If Audi has two big exhibitions at the same time, and rather large announcements at both of them, a chartered plane for execs and employees wouldn’t be all that unusual. And then, taking some bloggers along can almost be called ecological… ;)

  • avatar

    So the Detroit auto show is all about selling cars? Who’d a thunk it?!? In further news the sun rises in the east tomorrow and two plus two equals four.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    I’d click on the ads but I’m wracked with inner conflict because all I see on the TTAC page in Western Canada are GM and Chrysler links and banners.
    They’re the enemy right?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Allow me to reply to your sarcasm with sincerity.

      When you click on an advertisement, you are going to see more advertising content. Automakers advertise on TTAC. I am not totally sure how they get ads placed since I’ve never spoken a single word to our marketing people. Nonetheless, those are ads and everybody understands how advertising works.

      By contrast, when people get a free trip to an auto show and are spoon fed news, that distorts the overall public perspective of the show. If you don’t think it is wrong, that’s fine. Other readers want to know how the proverbial sausage is made and we are going to keep tellling them.

  • avatar

    “Who paid for the coverage you are reading? You did, by clicking on all those great ads. What? You haven’t clicked on an ad? Get clicking!”

    Best promo ever to get people to click on ads they aren’t interested in.

    So a question to you Jack, if I’m say a “ford guy”(insert any manufacturers name here) and all I do is blog and post in forums about fords, would I really be guilty for not showing curiosity from a competing brand?

    Should I disclose that ford paid for my trip, sure, but I don’t think I should be roasted for ignoring everything else but fords etc?

    Normally I agree with you, but I have to wonder who these people are who are “social media influencers”

  • avatar

    Jack, This article is why, if you are ever in NYC, you can name your restaurant.

    When I read what what Porsche has been doing a light finally dawned on my marblehead.

    Thanks for the great work.

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