It’s Time For the Tide to Turn on Automaker Junkets

Ripples on a pond. Waves on the ocean. On the surface, they’re innocuous. But make enough waves and you know’ll you’re either doing the right or wrong thing, taking the right or wrong action, getting the right or wrong result.

In this particular case, the waves were building in the form of private messages and an email from a public relations representative from an OEM. It read:

From: <OEM PR flack>
To: <Mark Stevenson>
Subject: Seriously ?

Honda…

That was it.

Even with only two words, the email was a no-brainer. The flack was talking about the Honda Odyssey launch.

Just weeks before that email, some members of TTAC had an at-length discussion on our participation in the event as TTAC’s invite to the program sat unanswered in my inbox.

As you all know by now, Honda flew journalists and their families to Hawaii to test the new 2018 Honda Odyssey and enjoy the comforts of the Big Island. It’s an important product for Honda, to be sure, as the minivan market is shrinking and automakers are coming up with ever-cleverer ways to part you from your money for a brand new two-box family hauler.

The program itself wasn’t nearly as opulent as other vehicle launches set in Marseille, Majorca, or Monte Carlo, but it still had all the ingredients for bad optics: a trip that included non-functional guests, a tropical paradise, and a vehicle out of its element on an island that isn’t known for having the best or many roads. These three ingredients crippled Honda’s press launch of the Odyssey from the start, priming the launch for undesired attention from readers.

But we still went.

After much deliberation and combing of Honda’s itinerary for the event, we decided we would send Chris on the trip (he has two kids, so it made sense to send them to test out a minivan). However, we made it plainly clear beforehand to Honda we wouldn’t participate in some of the activities on the agenda, namely an “Instagram scavenger hunt” engineered to drive social engagement for #Honda and the #Odyssey.

Our reason for our decision was this: If we didn’t go, we wouldn’t be able to offer our voice on the Odyssey to you at the same time as other outlets.

Many of our readers suggested, “You could have gotten Honda to deliver a local vehicle instead,” and that’s true. We’d need to wait for those vehicles to enter the general press fleets as we don’t hold the same sway as the buff books, which are given advanced vehicle access. That means our first review of an Odyssey would be months away. The timeline of getting a local vehicle would have put us at a significant competitive disadvantage.

Still, I’d like to make something clear to you, our readers: Just because we participated in Honda’s Hawaii launch of the Odyssey does not mean we agree with the process.

In other words, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Even I hate the game.

Honda, by holding its event in a far away locale with an extended stay to replicate a real family vacation, effectively forced us to take a junket that put our ethical integrity in jeopardy if we’re to remain competitive. This isn’t to shame Honda — at least not in particular. All OEMs will, at some point or another, come up with a grand plan to woo attendees on a junket to pay more attention to the garnish than the main course. This is an industry-wide problem.

Don’t believe me? Even some PR folks are worried about it.

“I am in a crisis of conscience,” stated one OEM representative in a message to me last week. “What the heck are we all doing?”

Well, what the heck are we all doing?

We — and I’m speaking for TTAC here — will do what we can to remain competitive. That means bringing you the content you enjoy and (hopefully) adding some unvarnished truth to the PR-friendly, hashtagged shouting match.

Unfortunately, this lifestyle-driven environment is now the status quo. We are now journalists attempting to exist alongside people who make their livings from videos explaining what they bought at the mall last week.

It’s fucking insane.

Until the automotive media collectively decides how much is too much so that we can all compete at the same level (which is never going to happen), or OEMs decide ingratiating themselves to journalists isn’t the best way to promote their #brands, the media will continue to dig itself further into the beach sand as the waves continue to lap at the shore.

But the tide is coming. I hope we don’t quickly find ourselves up to our necks in a flood.

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