To garner positive attention, car manufacturers have penetrated nearly every known form of communication. Ever read a book about cars? It was probably financed by the industry. Automakers have also funded films, architects and urban planners. But, the industry’s main influence within the media is its reach into the newsroom.
Last week Detroit News auto critic, Scott Burgess, resigned after a “Chrysler dealer complained about his review of the Chrysler 200 — the centerpiece of the company’s ‘Imported from Detroit’ advertising campaign.” According to the New York Times business section, “After the article appeared in the print edition Burgess was directed by editors to amend the online version of his story.”
Dependent on advertising for most of its revenue, the Detroit News must be responsive to the auto industry. As much as one-in-seven advertising dollars come from car companies. At $18 billion a year, auto advertisers in the U.S. spend twice the next industry, retail. Not for nothing has it been said that Sunday papers are car advertisements surrounded by casual journalism.
As a result, automakers are a powerhouse of colossal proportions in their dealings with the media. Former New York Times Detroit Bureau chief, Keith Bradsher, explained in High and Mighty, “Top auto executives hold frequent, off-the-record meetings with the nation’s leading publishers and editors, enjoying a level of access that most politicians can only dream of.”
In the early 1970s, controversy erupted as Congress deliberated on new safety standards. During this debate the New York Times ran stories that were, in the words of a former staff member, “more or less put together by the advertisers.” New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger admitted that if the auto industry’s position on safety and auto pollution were not presented, it “would affect the advertising.” As the source of 18 percent of newspaper ad revenue, the automakers called in favours to successfully push back against seatbelt and air bag laws.
It’s not just targeted political fights where the auto industry cashes in. They have a preferred media climate. “Taming the mediascape for an environment conducive to profit,” writes Naomi Klein in No Logo, “the auto industry are averse to controversy of any kind. Take Chrysler for instance; up until 1997, when Chrysler placed an ad it demanded that it be ‘alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive.” Chrysler also requested advanced notice of negative car editorials and many monthly magazines admit to giving automakers a heads-up (and the opportunity to pull ads) if an unfavourable article is forthcoming.
So, what happens when the automotive industry is not portrayed in all its shining glory? The LA Times knows. After printing a story in April 2005 calling for the dismissal of GM’s CEO, Rick Wagoner, the auto company immediately yanked all advertising from the paper. Reflecting on this incident, The New York Times business section noted that the auto industry “has been embroiled perhaps more than any other in ad controversies.” They cited three recent cases where advertising was pulled due to unpopular editorial decisions: GM pulled its ads from all Ziff-Davis magazines after Car and Driver printed an unflattering review of the Opel-Kadett model — running a photo of the car in a junkyard; auto dealers organized a four-month boycott after the San Jose Mercury News published, “A Car Buyer’s Guide to Sanity,” which offered negotiating tips to counter aggressive sales tactics; Chrysler withdrew its ads from Car and Driver after it published a photo essay displaying the carnage when a Dodge hit a cow at 60 miles per hour during a testdrive in Mexico.
Even Sierra magazine suffered the wrath of the auto industry in the mid 1990s. After failing to block a Sierra article criticizing the fuel economy of SUVs, automakers withdrew all SUV ads — seven percent of the magazine’s gross revenue. (Early on SUVs were promoted as a way to return to the countryside, hence the association with Sierra). This prompted the head of Sierra’s advertisement department to quit in disgust.
The automakers have been playing hardball with the media for a long time. Roy Chapin, founder and chairman of the Hudson Motor Company, said that in 1910 “the Chicago Tribune would not mention the name of any motor car in its columns.” As a result, Chapin noted, “the dealers in Chicago simultaneously withdrew their advertising from the Chicago Tribune. In a mighty short space of time that paper woke up and promised to do almost anything if they could get the advertising, and since that time they have been very decent in their attitude.”
The automotive industry’s approach to the media is summed up by GM’s executive director of advertising and media operations, Betsy Lazar: “It’s clear to us that our ads are less effective in a negative editorial environment. It is as simple as that. We actually have research in the auto magazine category that supports that notion. In some categories, in broadcast news, for example, it is the norm to be notified of a breaking negative story. If time permits, we will be notified by the network ‘there is a negative story tonight. Would you like to move your ads out?’ And we will say, ‘Absolutely.’”
This helps to explain why the corporate media has been so enthralled by the personal car.