Dear Auto Journalists: Auto Shows Aren't Really for Us
Last week, the New York Times ran an article about auto shows, and what the future may hold for them both during the pandemic and in the post-Covid19 future.
Auto shows are in the news because the pandemic caused the 2020 New York Auto Show to be scrapped, along with Detroit – and in a year in which Detroit moved the show to the summer for the first time. The 2020 Los Angeles Show is still on, as of now, but as with any large event scheduled for later this year, uncertainty surrounds it. The rumor mill suggests it too will be canceled.
While the article itself was a perfectly standard feature story, it was the discussion about it in Facebook groups that host members of the automotive media (as well as PR flacks and other industry professionals) that missed the point, in my opinion.
As is always the case when such an article runs, especially in the mainstream press (as opposed to the car-obsessed corners of the Internet media), journalists tossed out ideas on how to improve media days, or how to change them going forward for both Covid and post-Covid life, or whatever. Admittedly, some of the ideas were good, and some observations spot-on. But again, the entire discussion is beside the point.
Auto shows aren’t for the media. They’re for the public. We’re just along for the ride.
If this lament sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve discussed this before. However, since the discussion surrounding auto shows continues to crop up, and continues to avoid the fact that auto shows aren’t really for the media, I feel it bears repeating.
I understand why journalists get a bit myopic on this topic. For two and a half days or more, the auto show is all about us. Well, mostly about us – dealers, engineers, and other industry types tend to be part of press days, too. But those days are important for us – we create a lot of content, we rub elbows, we have off-the-record conversations that inform our work, we get photos, we get time to check out the newest vehicles up close and mostly unbothered, we shoot video, we consume a metric ton of free shrimp, et cetera (all this assumes non-pandemic life, of course).
We work hard during the day, party harder at night, and then, as soon as the champagne bottles roll in for the high-dollar charity preview (off-limits to journos unless we pony up the entry fee or snag an invite from someone), we bolt for the airport. Never mind that from the perspective of those who actually organize the shows, the event is just beginning. As the local dealers who popped the bubbly — along with their sometimes surgically enhanced spouses — during the charity preview shake off their hangovers the next day, the first members of the public are trickling in and paying to do so.
Think about who runs the four major American auto shows. In Chicago, Detroit, and New York, it’s the local auto-dealer associations. L.A. is run by an event-production company and I was unable to confirm before press time what level of involvement, if any, the local dealers have in putting on the show, but it’s likely they have some sort of hand in it.
Remember – auto shows exist to put shoppers in one place, under one roof, with less sales pressure than they’d otherwise see (dealer salespeople do sometimes work public days, but tend to be far less aggressive with consumers than they are on their own showroom floor. At least in my experience).
In-market shoppers are given a chance to look at all the newest vehicles in just a few hours, and dealers hope they’ll buy soon after. Meanwhile, people looking for something to do wander in, spend a few bucks to look around, and maybe a few of them buy a car within the next few months, too.
There’s a reason Detroit’s show was in the dead of winter for so long, and why Chicago’s remains in mid-February. Those are slow sales months for dealers, so if the show can spur some action, so much the better. Not like there’s much else going on, except winter sports and Valentine’s Day, anyway.
Us journalists seem to be forgetting this, though. Media days weren’t always a part of shows – until automakers realized that they could gather journalists in one place and take the wraps off of a new car, thus guaranteeing a lot of coverage for not a lot of spend. Even then, some of the first media events took place not on the show floor but at hotels in the host city, according to a contact of mine who works in the auto-show world. This would’ve been during the 1950s. Auto shows date a lot further back than that.
The idea of the pre-show media days worked well until the media went digital. Major reveals that took place during the first press day wouldn’t be in print until the next day, or until the local papers ran their Sunday transportation-section special. Even the TV segments wouldn’t run until late that evening, or during an hour-long weekend show. That meant there’d be time for journalists to sift through the information and give the spotlight to certain cars or how certain reveals took place. So the OEM with the coolest car or craziest launch event had a chance to capture the most attention. There’s a reason why Chrysler once steered cattle through downtown Detroit and drove Jeeps through glass walls.
Of course, the Internet changed that. Now, bloggers like us as well as the old-school newspaper wretches are posting reveals to the Web as soon as possible, which in most cases is when the embargo lifts.
Let’s say OEM A has a press conference at 2:30 ET, with the embargo lifting at the same time.
A bunch of pre-written articles will go live on sites just like this one precisely at 2:30, with a few stragglers coming in over the next 30-60 minutes.
If OEM B has the next press conference with, say, a 3:45 embargo, the process repeats, and OEM A gets shoved out of the news cycle as homepages everywhere update with the newest post. The spotlight is on OEM A for a whopping hour and fifteen minutes.
This is why OEMs have been doing more and more off-site events in the days and nights before the first official press day of a given auto show. For example, Ford flew journalists – myself included – to Los Angeles nearly a full week before the first media day of the 2019 show so we could spend time with the Mustang Mach E at not one, but two events: A deep dive into the car’s tech, and later, the actual unveiling on Sunday night. That timing gave Ford the spotlight for at least a day, since most of the next batch of reveals took place on Tuesday.
I bring up this background for a reason – if OEMs feel their news is getting lost in the news cycle during busy press days, they’ll focus on off-sites. And if journalists don’t want to gather due to concerns about Covid, the OEMs might just focus on live-streamed reveals.
Even in a post-Covid world where travel returns to 2019 levels, OEMs may decide that spreading out unveilings over the course of a year and/or making them online-only generates more bang for the PR buck.
Take the Corvette C8 reveal in 2019. Chevrolet could’ve taken the wraps off at its hometown auto show in Detroit, but nope – it flew journalists all the way to Orange County, California, possibly in part because that way, it was guaranteed to drive the news cycle. There may have been other reasons for this, such as delays in getting the car ready, but even if capturing the media’s full attention wasn’t the goal, Chevy still got that benefit.
Now that Covid has forced a few unveilings to be streamed over the Internet, OEMs may decide the cost of flights and hotels aren’t worth it. That will no doubt piss off perpetually cranky writers, editors, and photogs hoping to see and photograph the car up close. But the OEM will possibly save a huge chunk of money.
All this leaves the future of media days in some doubt – OEMs were already doing off-site events before the pandemic, including events that weren’t related to any show. That said, public days aren’t going anywhere – as soon as large gatherings are safe again, the shows will be up and running for Joe and Jane Car Buyer.
I don’t write this as some contrarian complaint about media days. I enjoy them. The hustle, the interviews with execs, seeing friends and colleagues, seeing the cars up close, and yes, the parties – those are all things I like. But if the OEMs realize there’s a better way to show off new product than spending an insane amount of money on a press conference only to get a few hours of ROI, auto-show media days could change dramatically, or even end.
Journalists would adapt. And we’d finally realize that the auto show is for the paying public, not for us.
It doesn’t matter to us where the shrimp is. Just that it’s there.
[Images © 2020 Tim Healey, Matt Posky/TTAC]
Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.
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