No Fixed Abode: They Paved the Auto Show, And Put Up An Exclusive Preview
Walking through Brooklyn, your humble author was confronted by a sign on a building that said, “We stay awesome 24/7, but we are only available in person,” followed by the company’s business hours. There are two ways to view that sort of arrant idiocy. The first is to shrug one’s shoulders and just chalk it up to the sort of cutesy, infantile, Millennial-focused marketing that has turned Brooklyn from a place where my mother was actually shot at in 1970 merely for wearing her Women’s Army Corps — but Mommy’s neither one of those, I’ve known her all these years! — Class A officer’s uniform to a sort of supervised playground for losers whose sheltered ineptitude has combined with the realities of a flaccid job market to suspend them in kindergarten gaffa until the parents run out of home equity with which to sustain them.
(That’s quite a sentence there, ain’t it? You won’t get combinations of Cheap Trick and Kate Bush jokes in Motor Trend, trust me.)
Alternately, you can be a bit more perceptive and/or distrustful about the whole matter. You might take it as a sign of a corporate culture where employees are, in fact, expected to “ stay awesome 24/7,” where everybody is judged on how infrequently they have an incorrect thought, even when they are off work. We’re rapidly approaching a day where we are never truly away from our jobs. You can be fired from your job for simply saying something that people don’t like during your private time; several years ago I had a public Facebook argument with two car-magazine writers that resulted in one of them calling my day job and making a “special request” to have me fired. (He was told to get stuffed, by the way.)
In other words, we now live in a world where corporations expect to have the kind of control over reality that was once just the nightmare imagination of George Orwell. Everything is now “curated,” which is a nice way of saying controlled. And that, in a nutshell, is why most of the “New York auto show” did not actually happen at the New York Auto Show.
By all accounts, the final revelation of the Dodge Demon was a triumph of the corporate will, an utter masterpiece of public-relations drama. I wouldn’t personally know; I was still driving to New York at the time so, like most of you, I saw it on Instagram. It was no surprise FCA knocked this out of the park. Not only is the Demon an utterly stupendous technological achievement that demonstrates a rare courage of conviction on its manufacturer’s part, it was also built by an automaker whose ability to shock-and-awe at auto shows has become auto-industry legend. Sometimes Chrysler’s stunts worked spectacularly (Grand Cherokee THROUGH A WINDOW!) and sometimes they did not (herds of aimless cattle defecating copiously on the street in freezing weather while bumping into brand-new Ram trucks), but they’ve always been larger than life.
Note, however, that both the Grand Cherokee and the RAM introductions happened at the show. In fact, everything that you might want to see or witness happened at the auto shows — until about five or six years ago, when a few automakers started holding private previews for the most important and/or tame journalists in the business the night before the Detroit Show opened. From the perspective of a PR person, doing this is the proverbial no-brainer. You get to “curate” the experience from beginning to end. This often means haranguing your attendees with a 45 minute presentation on culture or sustainability prior to bringing the product out, kind of a sustained vegetable-eating on everyone’s part before the ice cream arrives.
Holding your event off-site also allows you to control who gets in, although this is less a matter of keeping the TTACs and Autoextremists of the world out and more a matter of ensuring that the major outlets get a seat up front so they can report the “news” just the way you’ve written it. Last but certainly not least, by throwing in some drinks and a perhaps a B-List performer into the mix (Dodge had Elle King of “Exes and Ohs” fame) you make the media feel they are guests rather than reporters. This changes the way they will report on you, because most people were taught by their parents to treat their hosts with courtesy and respect.
In the case of the Demon preview, all these moving parts came together just like they were supposed to. In terms of volume and profitability, the big Dodge was probably the least important major reveal at the show — but thanks to some sleight of hand and some careful curation, FCA was widely acknowledged by the media to have “won the whole thing.” A good time was had by all. Everybody was a winner.
With that said, I do not care much for the idea of an auto-show future in which the manufacturers don’t really bother to come to the auto show itself. We don’t have much, if any, independent reporting left in this business. This will kill what remains of it. FCA didn’t do it this time, but it’s very easy to conceive of a day when a bit of negative reporting on a Grand Caravan’s transmission will cause your media outlet to be mysteriously unwelcome at the Demon press launch. (For the record, TTAC didn’t receive an invite to the Demon party in New York. An FCA rep also asked why one of TTAC’s writers hates Alfa so much. Since when did reporting the facts become hate? —Ed.) It only takes a couple of missed “scoops” like that to knock you off everybody’s browser-bookmark list. Who could survive the most rigorous application of a “curated” system like that, save for the most fawning and feckless outlets?
This isn’t a train that anybody is going to stop. It would take a combined media boycott to stop the automakers from doing their “auto shows” away from the auto show. Good luck with that. No, I’m afraid the future looks more manufacturer-friendly than it’s ever been. Nothing we can do about it. Good luck, everybody. And stay awesome. 24/7.
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