By on February 8, 2017

2017 Kia Niro Hybrid Hotel Emma, Image: © 2017 Mark Stevenson/The Truth About Cars

Simon Cameron, the 26th United States Secretary of War, is known for saying, “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.”

He could have said the same thing about supposed automotive journalists, too.

Wayne Gerdes, who was hired by Kia to set a Guinness World Record for fuel economy in the new Niro Hybrid, has just posted his review of the same vehicle. You know exactly how this is going to go.

We exposed Gerdes last year as a hired hand for Volkswagen’s “Clean Diesel” vehicles.

The German automaker contracted Gerdes to set fuel economy records in its diesel vehicles, then described Gerdes as an “automotive journalist” in its official press releases hyping the achievement. Gerdes also provided reviews for several Volkswagen vehicles, including the vehicles used for the Guinness World Records.

Earlier this year, Gerdes was contracted by Kia perform his hypermiling magic with the new Niro on a drive from Los Angeles to New York City. Gerdes, his co-driver Robert Winger, and the Niro Hybrid achieved an average consumption of 76.6 miles per gallon.

In contrast, we achieved ~45 mpg during our first drive in San Antonio.

However, when someone is a hired hand for an automotive manufacturer, that person must also draw a line when it comes to editorial opinion. In Wayne’s case, he doesn’t quite understand where said line resides.

Gerdes posted his Kia Niro “review” on his CleanMPG forum this Monday, and he does offer one short disclaimer at the bottom:

I am sorry I cannot provide many impressions other than those provided within the GWR drive – see link below – since I was hired to take the Niro on the Cross Country Guinness World Record Drive.

Gerdes probably would have been safe had he stopped there and only provided the basics offered by Kia’s official press release. However, Gerdes follows up the disclaimer with the following:

I can say however you will probably be impressed with the equipment, the driving experience and especially the efficiency when it is your turn to take the wheel of the most efficient CUV available today.

And that, my friends, is an endorsement — a paid endorsement, in fact.

I will give Gerdes credit where credit is due. He does restrain himself for the most part and sticks to the Niro press release’s talking points. Yet, earlier in the “review” — which isn’t much of one — Gerdes stumbles:

The Niro is a compact CUV in every sense of the word. An upright seating vehicle with off-road like looks from the higher roof with rails (FE trim lacks rails – yeah!!! :)), short front and rear overhangs, and all-around hard plastic lower rocker panel and front and rear fascia cladding.

Aside from the incomplete second sentence, that short, parenthesized comment is enough to give opinion. It isn’t much, but it’s there, and it exists. It’s another paid endorsement for Kia.

If Gerdes had any respect for his audience, he never would have posted a “review” of the vehicle. Instead, he could have posted links to the many automotive outlets offering unbiased (and unpaid for) reviews of the Niro, which have been generally positive across the board.

We asked Kia about the financial arrangement between itself and Gerdes, but it declined to speak on the matter. However, a Kia representative did mention that the Korean automaker doesn’t treat Gerdes as an automotive journalist.

Which begs the question: why is Gerdes posting a “review” of a product made by his client at all?

[Image: © 2017 Mark Stevenson/The Truth About Cars]

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36 Comments on “Wayne Gerdes Is At It Again! Hired Hand ‘Reviews’ Kia Niro After Guinness World Record Drive...”


  • avatar
    Banger

    All aboard the Last Train to Pettyville.

    If he were writing for a real review site, I’d be on-board. As he’s writing for his eco-minded, fuel-efficiency forum…meh. Wake me up when it matters.

    Does he carry weight with his followers? Sure, probably. Is he being published in one of the buff books or even in these pages? Only when you grind your ax.

    He made a disclosure statement, which you point out here. Is the man not supposed to have any sort of opinion, good or bad, because the automaker provided the car and paid him to perform the world record drive?

    That’s almost as disingenuous as people who tell us our opinions carry no weight just because we get press cars to review on the regular, or because we get invited to go on junkets at the automakers’ expense, or because several of us have gone back-and-forth between the worlds of automaker PR and automotive journalism.

    • 0 avatar

      “If he were writing for a real review site, I’d be on-board. As he’s writing for his eco-minded, fuel-efficiency forum…meh. Wake me up when it matters.”

      It matters because he calls himself an automotive journalist, and he should be impartial no matter what the forum or audience. Full stop.

      “Does he carry weight with his followers? Sure, probably. Is he being published in one of the buff books or even in these pages? Only when you grind your ax.”

      His record was published everywhere, which in turn promotes his forum. Then people join the forum and could possibly see this “review.”

      “He made a disclosure statement, which you point out here. Is the man not supposed to have any sort of opinion, good or bad, because the automaker provided the car and paid him to perform the world record drive?”

      When someone is paid cash by an automaker, their opinion should be labelled as sponsored content. This is not labelled as such. There’s a law about that actually: https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/ftcs-endorsement-guides-what-people-are-asking

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    Does anyone REALLY care about this? I mean, is his “CleanMPG forum” a real bastion of journalistic integrity? Is ANYTHING in the automotive enthusiast press?

    It’s entertainment, guys, that’s it.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d like to think we provide more than just entertainment.

      • 0 avatar
        S2k Chris

        It’s quality entertainment, but for me…no. I don’t work in the industry, and I don’t base investments or purchases off of automotive reviews. It’s merely information I find interesting to read on a subject I’m fascinated by. Kind of like I’ve read lots of nonfiction books on the industry, and it’s interesting insight, but ultimately it’s just entertainment for me.

        Sorry.

    • 0 avatar
      NotFast

      Not everyone works in the industry or is smart/learned enough to see through the smoking BS.

      I had that recently reinforced when I got into an argument on stupid Reddit with car dealership people who couldn’t admit that paint protection, wheel insurance and extended warranties were worthless moneymakers for the dealerships. I guess I shouldn’t have expected otherwise, but I thought everyone knew not to buy these waste-of-money add-ons…

  • avatar
    JimZ

    at least he disclosed it this time. the problem is that the average car buyer doesn’t know how “the sausage is made.”

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    We’re back to Journalism 101 here.

    Can journalists be paid spokespeople? I suppose so…all they need to do is disclose that this is the deal. If Gerdes had put a disclaimer like “hey, readers, Kia has hired me to write stuff about their cars,” then he’d be in the clear, ethically speaking.

    Of course, this pretty much eviscerates the writer’s credibility, but that’s up to a fully informed reader to decide.

    Geddes owed it to his readers to fully disclose his relationship with Kia right up front, versus burying it at the bottom of the story.

    • 0 avatar
      Banger

      This is where one reminds FreedMike that it used to be the house style for this site and still is the house style for dozens of others to place disclosure statements at the END of reviews.

      • 0 avatar

        There’s a difference between a voluntary disclosure statement and a statement that’s mandated by law.

        • 0 avatar
          S2k Chris

          It does not appear that this meets the letter of the law above, even if it might meet the spirit. That law seems to suggest that it’s required to make a disclosure (which he did) when he gets the product he’s reviewing for free, or is being paid to review the product by the manufacturer. It seems as though he is in two separate transactions here, which are tangential but not directly related (one to do the hypermiling, and one to review the product). He wasn’t paid to write the review, nor was he provided a car for free (beyond the review period).

          IANAL, but mountains and molehills.

          Edit: I may have misunderstood; was there a separate review or was this review based on his drive in the hypermiling thing? Either way, I still don’t think it’s a big deal.

          • 0 avatar

            The only time he had the vehicle was during his GWR attempt, so he was being paid by Kia during the only time he drove the Niro.

          • 0 avatar
            Banger

            S2k Chris nails it: Mountains, molehills.

            One does not necessarily improve his own credibility by impugning that of another.

            It bears asking whether Mr. Stevenson has sought the FTC’s input on this, or whether he’s satisfied to instead simply drag Gerdes’ name through the mud in this publication.

            Surely if FTC were queried, any response would have warranted inclusion in this piece.

          • 0 avatar

            So you’re okay with me taking a $12,000 check from an automaker then providing a “review”? Good to know. I need some shrimp money this week.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        @Banger:
        “This is where one reminds FreedMike that it used to be the house style for this site and still is the house style for dozens of others to place disclosure statements at the END of reviews.”

        And this is where one reminds Banger what that those disclosure statements look like. They’re along these lines: “hey, Dear Reader, XYZ Car Corp provided me with the car, gas, and insurance for this review, along with a charming lunch at TGI Friday’s.”

        They do NOT read “XYZ Car Corporation gave me a check to write a nice review for their car.

        The question here is credibility. Gerdes lost it the minute he started taking paychecks marked “Kia Motors.” And it isn’t the first time he’s done this.

        • 0 avatar
          Banger

          “So you’re okay with me taking a $12,000 check from an automaker then providing a “review”? Good to know. I need some shrimp money this week.”

          Obfuscation.

          Answer the question: Did you query the FTC about this, or are you content to drag Gerdes through the mud from your bully pulpit?

          I’m not so much defending Gerdes’ disclosure (or what you perceive as a lack thereof) so much as I’m trying to understand your obsession with it.

          FreedMike:

          Gerdes obviously sees these things quite differently than you and I do. I wouldn’t do what he has done. I do a little freelance auto review work in addition to a full-time newspaper gig, and even I know how questionable it is.

          But I imagine Gerdes probably would say the payment was solely for the world record drive, and his review, such that it is, came after that job was done.

          Shady? Sure. Worth spilling all this digital ink on TTAC? Not if I were the editor. This is The Truth About Cars, not The Truth About Autojournalists.

          • 0 avatar
            VoGo

            Banger,
            You may not know this, but TTAC was founded on the principle that traditional auto-journalists were in bed with the carmakers, and the result was that customers were poorly informed.

            This is why TTAC exists. If not for this foundation, TTAC would be just another car site where the carmakers bribe the “journalists’ with various trips and freebies to get the reviews they want.

          • 0 avatar

            I’m less interested in whether Gerdes broke the law and more interested in that he was paid cash by an automaker to do a job and then “reviewed” that automaker’s product.

            There doesn’t need to be an agreement between Gerdes and the automaker to provide the review to show the malfeasance going on here. Gerdes’ endorsement of the vehicle is brought into question because there’s a commercial relationship between himself and the automaker. Honestly, it’s too bad, because the Niro is quite good, but this kind of shit makes us all look bad by extension.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Banger doesn’t see a substantive difference between a loaner car + a junket and a loaner car + money.

            Mr. Stevenson feels differently. I suspect that most people with some knowledge of journalism would agree with him.

            That being said, it isn’t clear that Gerdes was writing advertorial. What is more likely is that Gerdes chose to find an additional way to monetize his time spent in the car and/or to promote himself through his appearance on another website.

    • 0 avatar
      Banger

      VoGo:

      I’m acutely aware, as someone who came to this site and created his profile during the Farago heyday, what this site is all about.

      As I said, this ain’t The Truth About Autojournalists. And Stevenson ain’t no Farago, for that matter.

      “This is why TTAC exists. If not for this foundation, TTAC would be just another car site where the carmakers bribe the ‘journalists’ with various trips and freebies to get the reviews they want.”

      What if I told you the majority of TTAC reviews come as a result of carmakers “bribing,” to use your term, the journalists?

      Stevenson’s own review of the Kia Niro published shortly before this hit piece came as a direct result of being flown to Texas, put up in a hotel, and fed by the manufacturer. He made disclosure of that in his review — near the top instead of at the bottom, as used to be customary around here.

      That said, just because a carmaker provides access does not mean they “get the reviews they want.”

      Furthermore, just because Gerdes was paid to do the world record attempt does not mean he was paid to write a review of the Niro. That’s the central question here — what did his contract with Kia say? Did they specify that they were paying him for both the world record attempt AND the review?

      That’s why I keep asking Stevenson whether he queried FTC about it, because I suspect they would want to know the same thing. I suspect Stevenson has not, the FTC is wholly unaware of the perceived issue, and this piece is more personal than business. At best, Stevenson’s hunch is not fully investigated, and he has put up an article that Gerdes and his lawyers might consider libelous.

  • avatar
    ajla

    He’ll be the EIC of Motor Trend soon enough.

  • avatar
    St.George

    The days of journalistic integrity have long gone. Whether articles are slanted due to payment (either in cash, the invitations to ‘jollies’ or the threat of future access to press cars being withheld) or slanted due to political beliefs, now it’s very much of ‘reader beware’ when reading articles.

    To me, TTAC is actually a shining light of impartiality and hasn’t historically been afraid to call a spade a spade. Keep up the good work!

  • avatar
    Add Lightness

    I only trust Auto Journalists if a few manufacturers refuse to give them vehicles because of too honest past reviews.
    I trust Ted Laturnus’ reviews

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Mark, I’m glad to see you take a sharp stance against this sort of thing. Journalism’s gotten so bribe heavy I only turn to consumers at this point, people who pay rather than are paid.

    This kinda stuff runs rampant in the videogame market, pay a YouTuber a few bucks and watch them become amazed with a game that would be at home in an Atari.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    As a Kia partisan, I wish the company had simply avoided this clown. They should have looked and learned from VW’s relationship with him.

    Hopefully the Niro will stand on its own, journalistic shenanigans aside.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      Gerdes is a really good hypermiler. He’s no Journalist. Mark, as a real, throwback, professional editor will and should get all riled up over this hypermiler pretending to be a journalist while performing PR duties to enhance his income. it’s not just of questionable legality, it’s unseemly. Gerdes is degrading the title of journalist by wrapping himself in it.

      Banger seems to not like editors.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        “Banger seems to not like editors.”

        or is Wayne Gerdes.

        • 0 avatar
          Banger

          I can assure you I am not Wayne Gerdes. Nor have he and I ever met.

          And I don’t have a problem with editors. Hell, I *am* one.

          I just think for someone who once told me he didn’t need any more auto reviews because “anyone can write a car review,” Stevenson doth protest too much when anyone does, in fact, write a car review without the level of journalistic ethics to which he and I hold ourselves.

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