By on July 19, 2012

Within a week of starting at TTAC, I’d learned to acclimatise myself to Bertel’s management style; our morning phone calls turned into one-hour mini lectures on various facets of the industry, touching on sales, marketing, engineering, product development and some of the more arcane subjects of the business (including some that aren’t repeatable here). One of the maxims that Bertel hammered in to me was to look past the cars. “It’s always about the people,” is one of his guiding principles. I’m infinitely fortunate to have not just Bertel, but the other editors and contributors to help provide context and fill in the gaps, but one of the biggest influences is a name you won’t see on our masthead.

Ryan Holiday has recently written a book about his career as a PR exec for some major brands, including American Apparel, and how he was able to manipulate some of the biggest blogs in the world to disseminate the message that would benefit his clients. The book is called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, and delves deep into the inner workings of blogs, and how the incentives built into the world of online, like pageview-metric-based advertising model, hurts the quality of news and information we consume.

One of my goals at TTAC has been to write a piece with Ryan’s help, but it’s difficult to get anyone to go on record. With Bertel’s encouragement, I sought out anyone willing to comment on the topic, but nobody was willing. Auto execs will complain about sloppy reporting or a lack of fact-checking, but they’re ultimately reluctant to criticize a great source of free publicity. Bloggers will complain to me in private about the quality of the work they sometimes must deliver to meet their targets, but criticizing the system in public would put their careers in jeopardy. Even so, it’s easy to make the connections; erroneous reports of baby Porsche roadsters, Korean luxury brands and unsold LFAs, reported as fact and then retracted, are all a byproduct of the cycle of fake news that is created to feed the content mills of the automotive world

Ryan and I have had a long standing correspondence related to our respective lines of work, and we’d discussed the pitfalls of blogs for some time; the clickbait headlines, the re-hashed press releases masquerading as news, the futile rush to “be first” with a bullshit “exclusive” or “scoop”, even if it meant writing articles that were simply incorrect or untrue. In my naivete, I’d hoped to enhance the quality of content at one of my previous positions, improving the “signal to noise ratio”, but discussions with Ryan helped me realize that it was a futile task. As Ryan put it

“The correct measure of any system is not where it is successful, but where it fails. For example, the housing market worked quite well for investors and homeowners and made many of them a lot of money…until 2007-2008. Then it became clear that it wasn’t a market at all so much as it was a collection of hustles, frauds and delusions. We can look at blogging the same way. Yes it has made some investors wealthy and yes it generally gets us the news quickly and entertainingly. But when it fails, it fails massively and shows us how broken it is.

Take 2010, when the Internet and national media were in a frenzy over reports of unintended accelerations in Toyota cars. We now know that basically everyone who reported about this was utterly wrong. Toyota has been largely exonerated, after a full investigation by NASA, no less. Many of the cases of computer issues supposedly causing unintended acceleration were dismissed entirely, and most were found to be caused by driver error. Drivers had been hammering the accelerator instead of the brakes! And then blamed the car! In other words, the scandal that Toyota was so heavily criticized online for had been baseless.

As journalist Ed Wallace wrote for BusinessWeek in an apology to Toyota, “[A]ll the reasons why the public doesn’t trust the media crystallized in the Toyota fiasco.” Yet, what, if any changes have we seen to how blogs report on scandals? Are they more cautious? Or do they still report iteratively? Does the headline still trump all?

This will not change because the incentives make it so. Bloggers don’t LOSE money when they get a story about Ford or GM wrong. No, they get a SECOND story out of it. Bloggers aren’t penalized when they write a biased or unfair review. They’re rewarded because the angry comments it generates means more pageviews and links. Getting it first is better than getting it right. Getting it wrong is cheaper than getting it best.

The complicated, risky, this-needs-some-serious-investigating are the stories blogs are basically incapable of getting right. So what do they do instead? They focus on press releases, gimmicky slideshows and other marketing BS. Manipulators like me know this and so we game the system, getting fawning press for our clients. We have to because we know that at any moment a bogus story like the Toyota one can happen. How much whitewashing is Toyota going to need to do to make up for the unfair coverage it got over the last 2 years?”

Although Ryan isn’t a “car guy”, he’s been available round-the-clock as an invaluable resource to help us meet our mandate of delivering The Truth About Cars, whether it’s providing background information about GM and their Facebook advertising program, helping us refine our media criticism articles or furthering our understanding of how to deliver quality content in a space the prizes quantity and expediency above all else.


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20 Comments on “A Thank You To Someone You Won’t Find On The Masthead...”

  • avatar

    Are you really just figuring this out now, or was that more for dramatic effect?

    I figured all of this out the first time I went to a car show as a member of the press. The way they herd you from one press release to the other, free lunch, and lots of sucking-up to the established autojournosaur corps. to ensure good reviews. Then I went on an actual new vehicle launch and I was blown away by the accommodations, location, and food. The best meals I’ve ever had were at an automaker’s expense.

    We are all just marketing pawns, even TTAC. I would argue that while TTAC car reviews carry more weight than some of the more established magazines, at the end of the day we’re all still slaves to pageviews. It is sort of disheartening at first…but I doubt any other industry is much different.

    Writing, as a whole, has become a sort of bastardized version of itself. Anybody with a keyboard and basic grammar skills can find a paying job as a wordsmith, and it isn’t necessarily even the best writers who rise to the top. See “50 Shades of Grey”. Somebody needs to give that writer a Thesaurus.

    At the end of the day though, what marketers really know is that writers have to write. No matter how hard we fight it, we just have to put words to (virtual) paper, and there is a certain elation when you realize wow, 100,000 people read something I wrote in the past 24 hours. I think it was Jack Baruth who said it best when talking about press junkets and trips; automakers know that if they schmooze you just right, it will be hard for you to write something overtly negative about the experience. And even if you do, it doesn’t seem like they much care.

    So ya, our profession is pretty much screwed.

    • 0 avatar

      isnt 50 Shades of Grey more about planting ideas? if that’s so, couldnt a thesaurus work against the purpose?

      I used to write for a building trade magazine (that has since moved its content from pulp to silicon, i might add) and was advised against letting the words distract from the product/feature.

    • 0 avatar

      “automakers know that if they schmooze you just right, it will be hard for you to write something overtly negative about the experience.”

      Spot on. They’re not explicitly buying (renting?) a positive review, but it’s human nature to want to help a party who was nice to, or did something for you.

      Plus, it’s the only way to keep your hands officially clean when someone accuses you of being bought. You weren’t technically bought, but you really kind of were.

      This is how lobbying works in politics. It’s not illegal, but it’s definitely immoral.

    • 0 avatar

      An interesting post marred by insufferable condescension.

  • avatar

    Do you really think Toyota can wipe their hands clean just because NASA says their are no electronic glitches? If so then the Toyota story line should be filed and considered history. Case closed? But it’s not.

    Everyone in the media should be exonerated!

    This snow ball that was let loose and has evolved into Toyota being No. 1 in recalls in 2010, Honda in 2011. Along with documents of $ saved by not recalling. The media builds the bubbles, they pop as they did in Toyota and Honda, then the media helps to deflate them.

    There is no “truth” if you are going to be reporting with the rest of Sheeple journalist.

    • 0 avatar

      The recalls associated with SUA were mostly, if not all, in 2009. Toyota was already moving up on the recall charts. But, Toyota (including Lexus and Scion) led recalls in 2009, 2010, and 2011.|compaq-desktop|dl7|sec1_lnk2%26pLid%3D124279

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      SUA is codswallop. Get in your car (or a rental if yours is a manual), step on the bakes and gun the motor. Does the car move? No it does not move. Please.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    How often do you visit the dark three in the morning of your soul where all your doubts and fears are going into overdrive? If it’s rarely and you like what you do, keep on rolling.

  • avatar

    The need to be first, the desire for ratings, and manipulation by publicity sources are all issues.

    But there is a fourth issue — bloggers and journalists often don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know what questions to ask because they don’t know enough about the subject matter in order to ask the right questions. They get fooled because they don’t know enough not to be fooled. And if they are biased, then they are easily fooled because they will hear what they want to hear, while ignoring the other facts that don’t fit their preconceptions.

    With respect to the TMC unintended acceleration matter, there is an additional issue that is unique to the automotive industry. Auto safety matters, and the government is expected to protect the public from unsafe cars. The problem with unintended acceleration is that the safety problem is almost always the result of user error.

    As Audi learned with the 5000, it is very difficult to point the finger at your customers without suffering a backlash. It makes the automaker look petty, while the customers (who don’t understand the engineering principles that make drivers responsible for these things) don’t want to hear it.

    The Mark Saylor crash was a perfect storm for a PR disaster — a cop, killed with his family in a fiery, high speed crash, with the last moments recorded by 911. The fact that he and his family were killed because the dealer had installed the wrong floor mat in his loaner car didn’t do anything to help TMC or the government.

    The government had to look as if it was “doing something”, while the automaker couldn’t point the finger at its dealer (which was the responsible party) or at the driver. Both the feds and TMC were painted into a corner. In that sense, I would put the fault on the feds, not because they had some sort of vendetta against TMC (I’m sure that they didn’t), but because they didn’t have the courage to tell the public that “unintended acceleration” is usually the fault of the average taxpayer who claims to have suffered from it. Sometimes, it’s easier to tell people what they want to hear than it is to educate them.

  • avatar

    I would like to know the truth about the comments I often see on blogs.. Autoblog, cough-cough…. following a story showing any Honda/Toyota product.

    Even a spy photo of the new Accord under heavy camouflage will instantly show 10+ comments instantly lambasting it… there are the few real bloggers that will comment in defense of the product or a few with real honest criticism….

    The cycle has become painfully obvious. Out of the initial 20 comments of most any story to do with Toyota/Honda, a majority appear paid for neagtive commentary….

    I would say, strictly anecdotally speaking, Toyota and Honda have the most “enemies” in these blog environments. I would wager that most of these bloggers are hired by competing firms to ensure all news surrounding these 2 firms is surrounded by a cloud of negativity. Its sad…. but it also reveals who is afraid of whom.

    For the record, I think the new CR-V is styled perfectly. It just catches your eye and comes across as a very well reconciled design… The new Escape on the other hand with its lauded Kinetic styling theme just doesnt do it… Its either too busy or somehow appears too small even though its dimenstions are on par with the Honda….

    The funny thing is, and where I think Honda still shines, is that the details on the Escape are more thought out. The detailing under the front headlights, the complexity of the front bumper. In this regard, the Escape is a superior design… BUT, the overall form and cohesiveness in the Honda design is superior. Far superior. It is just a nice shape with the right amount of tension in the right places. And that rear glass, what a thing of beauty…

    • 0 avatar

      I can assure you they aren’t paid. Some people, believe it or not, really do take time out of their day to rant against a faceless entity like an automaker.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey, before you go tarring everyone with the same brush, I’m not a paid troll…I’ve just owned a few Hondas and seem to be incapable of anything other than calling ’em like I see ’em. On this here Internet thing, it’s pretty easy to ignore BS (no offense, Bertel!) from paid trolls and paid fanbois alike. This site seems to do a pretty good job of minimizing both.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s my opinion that comparing the Escape to the CRV is like comparing an ugly woman to a homely woman. If the topic under discussion is “beauty” then you’ve picked two really bad representatives of the concept.

      Can I safely assume that all the positive comments we find on blogs are also written by paid shills? Going by your logic, it stands to reason…

  • avatar

    Blogs are entertainment, not journalism.

    They are the equivalent of the morning news variety hour, not the PBS Newshour. Shallow stories to fill time/space and make people go “ooohh”.

    They are entertainment for all the reasons Derek, Ryan and a number of Jack’s former posts highlight. A serious automotive news blog cannot employ grownups as a day job if held to the standards and expectations of Real Journalism. Simply put, the revenue doesn’t cover the costs.

    It’s because of this that we (click my name) try to stay out of the fray of Serious Business. We do reviews because we believe they make good fodder for evaluation and writing, but only so far as “they is my/Jeff/Kamil’s opinion about this car”, not “we’re here to give the definitive final word on the new Nissan Versa”. I’d be lying if I said there was no self interest involved; what car guy doesn’t want a chance to sample the whole menu without having to buy a new car every month?

    All that said, TTAC deserves respect for their Quixotic mission. When you guys succeed best is to detach from the auto media clusterfnck and give us just the facts as you see them, labeled as such. Where you fail is when you go out of your way to pick fights or point out how much cleaner/better/righter you are than the competition. When you’re hardcore, you don’t need to point it out.

    • 0 avatar

      And journalism is entertainment, not journalism. In the automotive field, going back to Tom McCahill, and before that back to Autocar, etc.

      When I was a kid, I was a serious auto magazine junkie. I had a huge collection. Then when I went to work for the Proving Ground one of the first things I learned was that all the magazines were totally Full of Crap. The cars they ragged on, I liked. The cars I liked, they ragged on. The cars they thought were revolutionary. when I drove them side by side with their competition, were indistinguishable from same. And so on, and so on.

      So we have new car mags that gush and bash with abandon based on what the incentives are this month. We have modding-oriented magazines that peddle the Big Lie that yes! you too! can actually do better than real automotive engineers in your garage, armed with nothing more than a Craftsman set and a Summit catalog. Now our cup runneth over with Internet sites full of comments by the terminally clueless (among which some would categorize me, no doubt). That’s not directed at you or anyone in particular, by the way.
      You know what I would love to see (but it wouldn’t pay)? A site dedicated to real-world enthusiast cars. Not new cars (paying new depreciation is silly). Not old junk that you’re going to rotisserie-restore. Not weekends toys. Stuff that’s 6-12 years old, old enough to be a decent deal, new enough you have a prayer of finding one that’s not used up. How do they road test *now*? Now that they’re broken in, now that we see them in a longer perspective than just what happens to be in the press pool this month? What does the market look like (some are worthy of special consideration because they depreciate more, or maybe less)? What are the operating costs? Can you get parts? The British seem to do this sort of thing, but America is all about New! New!

      Ah, well. Please excuse the grumpy rant/whine, it’s been a rough week.

      • 0 avatar

        OMFG. That’s TWO.

        First of all, Gannet is correct about journalism; particularly automotive “journalism.” Journalism demands allegiance to the reader and independence from those covered on the reader’s behalf. The bulk of the automotive press is bought and sold by the automotive industry; if not through access to press fleets, then the just-like-print reliance upon ad revenues for survival.

        If it’s not another hastily paraphrased press release spun as some kind of scoop or exclusive, it’s maddening churn, as dozens of keyword-rich content is pumped out daily like literary pink slime. Where is the substance? Where is the meaning?

        It’s frustrating as hell to bust your A for nearly three years sharing stories of real people doing real things with real cars they really love, only to see so many of those people get wrapped up in debating gratuitous sensationalism and speculation. For every prole “fanboi” foaming at the mouth in defense of his favorite model, there are hundreds, if not thousands of “recognized” media outlets peddling hyperbole in order appease advertisers whose sole existence depends on putting such ideas into his head in the first place.

        Not every automotive publication is looking to keep your distracted for hours on end clicking links to justify their CPM. Not everyone is so willing to cower behind “objective professionalism” in order to preserve a paid gig in a race-to-the-bottom industry.

        You know what’s nice about modern technology? You can open a new tab and have your very own bully pulpit to cover whatever topic you like, to whatever journalistic standards you wish in about 90 seconds. If you care about the everyman, HELP HIM LIVE A BETTER LIFE.

        To call attention to a problem and not lift a finger to solve is to be complicit.

        Part of the solution. Part of the problem. Part of the landscape.

  • avatar

    At the risk of being cynical, and notwithstanding the butress-like contribution that Mr. Holiday has made to TTAC’s research, it does strike me that he finally agrees to be quoted in an article by you on the occasion of his book publication. This is coincidence, I am sure, and based solely on your gratitude for all his input, and is unrelated to his self-description as a Manipulator.

    In other words, has it occurred to you, Derek, that the Manipulator is manipulating you for free book sales press?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “Take 2010, when the Internet and national media were in a frenzy over reports of unintended accelerations in Toyota cars. We now know that basically everyone who reported about this was utterly wrong.”

    My recollection is that TTAC was on the money from the get go. Congratulations to the Niedermeyers, Bertel, and to Robert Farago, who started the blog.

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