Clemens Gleich Explains How Press Trips Work
It's a tough job. Our author, working his tail off evaluating product on a press junket to South Africa
If you’ve ever had a friend or relative who was both eager and nervous to show off a painting, piece of music or other creative work (“Tell me what you really think. Don’t sugarcoat it.” Who hasn’t heard that one before), then you’ll understand how PR people must feel when they’re tasked with introducing a new vehicle.
Contrary to popular belief, there also is no advance briefing for newbies to only write good things. The reason is very simple; You don’t need it. Here’s an example. I love motorcycle riding. So when there was an uninterrupted layer of snow on my street (to the point where I was able to get my snowboard out and turn it into an impromptu downhill run) I really began suffering from an extreme form of PMS (parked motorcycle syndrome). I had the bluest balls a bike rider can have. The bike in question (a 600 Kawasaki Ninja with a delightful Lucy Liu squint) couldn’t even be considered just “parked” any more. It was buried. As I wallowed in my misery by watching fresh snow fall from my balcony, I received a message from Berlin; “Want to go ride a BMW in South Africa? Gimme a call at the office. Pronto.”
I obeyed. I went to South Africa. I rode. On my return, a friend at Honda was very interested. “How was the new BMW?” he asked. I looked at him for moment and answered: “It’s February. My street is full of snow. For all I know, my motorcycle is also full of snow now. I rode the BMW in glorious summer weather in a wonderful country. How do you think it was? It was perfect, of course. The best bike I have ridden in a very long time.”
Seeing the future: In a few days I will be driving this Toyota GT86 around the Nürburgring. It will be great, therefore I will write a slightly overenthusiastic text about a slightly underpowered car.
Manufacturers have nothing to fear. Everyone will love driving around no matter what is on offer. In a few days, Toyota will let me have a go with their GT86 (marketed as a Scion in the States). At the Nurburgring. Guess what; It will be great. And by “it” I mean the experience, which you cannot separate from the surroundings. They could send me around the track in an otherwise stiflingly boring Toyota Borreliosis 1.6 automatic station wagon and I still would have a blast.
The Aprilia RSV4 is the most different superbike experience money can buy. This experience includes an engine that destroys its own piston rods and guzzles its fuel tank bone dry in 75 miles, but I can practically guarantee you will love it if I let you experience an exhaust noise like a thunderstorm on the brilliant Jerez racetrack
All that talk about “ringers”, specially prepared press vehicle with more power, better handling and cushier interiors, isn’t true either. It doesn’t have to be. When Aprilia showed the world the first batch of their superbike RSV4, most of the piston rods broke. Didn’t matter. In Italy, nobody lost a word about it in any publication. It’s simple behavioral science. If you, as a human being, are invited to a gorgeous locale, put up in a nice room, fed wonderful food and wonderful drinks and a chance to run wild with a beautiful machine, you will respond in kind. It’s easy to hold back, partly because cars are at a level now where there nearly aren’t any really bad ones left, but mostly because you can always say to yourself “Well, I only logged four hours in this. Seems hardly fair to hate it already. Especially since they were such a nice bunch of people…”
Yes, we at Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. absolutely adore your work. Here's the Gallardo Superleggera. Here are some Alps along with it. Have a go. And then you will tell me and everyone else about how you have deeply fallen in love. Grazie.
This expands from inviting somebody to just giving somebody something. If I give you a car, you will have some amount of good will towards me, simply because a car represents a significant value: “Not everyone gets a car, you know, and we at [s]Cadillac[/s] Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. love your work, man, we really do and we think this [s]CTS-V wagon[/s] Superleggera version [s]will ensure you’ll write nice things about other GM products and slag our competitors[/s] fits perfectly into your perfect weblog.” What will you write? Something nice, I assure you. I work for both sides. I produce texts for magazines, but I also produce texts or think of activities for manufacturers to use in advertising (these two sides of work are much more similar than you might think). So I can give the advice I got a long time ago: Be nice and give them your products. Don’t tell them what to do, because they will do what you want anyway: They will write about it and they will almost exclusively write nice things. It’s free PR.
Free PR also means that even TTAC gets a press car. “Yes, Mr. Baruth, whatcha say about having a go at the Nürburgring? You are the best for this, I just love your fashion sense. I’ve even ordered my own golden jacket.” The reason not everyone sees it like this is insecurity or pride or a number of other human emotions that get in the way of efficient conduct in press and PR. Ferrari is notorious for being mortally offended by anything less than extreme superlatives. In Germany, Porsche is so loved (and worshipped even) that they are truly astonished if someone doesn’t write that their car is “perfect”. Volkswagen PR is a crass control freak. There is a guy at Daimler who seems to dislike some publications for reasons only he knows. I could extend the list all the way to the bottom of your scrollbar. There is an element of deterrence in this, of course. One of the biggest fears for a motoring publication is not (or no longer) being invited to press events. Because of that, they print extremely boring stuff of such low originality that a machine could do the same and pass the Turing test. This is still free PR, but it’s no longer very remarkable or very viral, which is bad. The PR people in these examples could do much better for their company by remembering what they learned in school: There still is no such thing as bad publicity.
Let’s take BMW again. The Bavarians are a confident people and the company reflects this. I once did a whole article about the best-selling bike in Europe (BMW R 1200 GS) just to get under their skin. It is a good bike, but I just don’t like it, which is a pointlessly evil reason to write, albeit a very fun one. I compared a new GS to my old Aprilia RSV Mille, a repeatedly crashed Frankenstein monster of a track whore, and the Bimmer lost — badly. The readers loved it (or wrote bitter letters). BMW didn’t even comment. The article had no influence on anything. I also recently did an article about why Audis traditionally drive like they have a dung heap on the bonnet. Shortly thereafter, Audi showed me around their R&D facilities for a later article and everything was just König Ludwig. These companies know they have good products and they also seem to know something hard to accept: A scathing review people talk about is much better PR than the standard mediocre fluff the readers’ brains immediately chuck into the sea of forgetfulness. Confidence is the best thing PR can have.
So now you know why there are practically no evil articles written from press trips. But you also know what to do if you create something to sell yourself and need free PR: Give it to as many people you can afford to. And don’t worry. Be confident.
If you want to know how advertising in the motor industry works, write to Clemens. He might get around to explaining it.
Clemens Gleich is an evil communist Nazi goosestepper who writes for money in Germany. You can find his propaganda central at www.mojomag.de.
Michael Karesh on Jun 11, 2012
In my experience, any valid criticism of the car presented in a factual manner is fair game. Where many manufacturers draw the line is if they feel that you are greatly exaggerating or distorting the car's weaknesses for dramatic effect, or where the tone of the review seems mean-spirited. It is dangerous to get too close to the manufacturers' reps. If they become your friends, well it's hard for properly socialized people to honestly critique the work of their friends. I'm often reminded of the portrayal of the relationship between artist and critic in "Almost Famous." WWLBD? At the same time, it's important to realize that all people do not think or react the same way to these press junkets. While most people automatically say nice things about their friends, some of us only come to realize that the facts aren't the most important thing after many years of struggle. Even then the self-censoring must be much more conscious. The upside is that the self-censoring is much more open to conscious modulation.
Juicy sushi on Jun 11, 2012
Thanks for the honesty. It does make me wonder though just how ridiculous Ferrari's reaction to Chris Harris' rant was last year. And about the necessity of his rant in the first place. Still, it was an interesting bit of disclosure which helps one better understand the media we consume. I just wonder if anyone else is as silly as Ferrari, and more importantly, if similar silliness occurs in genuinely important segments of the market (like the B, C or D segments).
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