It’s (Not Even) About Ethics In Automotive Journalism

Advertisement or just plain old "car content"? Or is there a difference?

Advertisement or just plain old “car content”? Or is there a difference?

The first time I ever watched “The World’s Fastest Car Show,” I was on an airplane. I can’t remember the airline, but when I took my seat on the flight, an episode showing a shootout to crown “The World’s Fastest Sedan” was playing on the seatback screen in every row. At the time I didn’t think twice about it, assuming it was simply an advertisement for the winning Dodge Charger Hellcat. I’d previously seen a similarly-produced segment featuring the Lincoln MKS “competing” for the affection of a bunch of actors portraying luxury car buyers, and that was unmistakably advertising. After all, everything that runs on those seatback screens pre-flight are clearly paid-for advertisements.

So imagine my surprise this morning, when Jalopnik’s Editor-in-Chief Matt Hardigree tweeted a link to a Kinja Post from “The World’s Fastest Car Show” which stated that the segment I had seen on that airplane was “banned” from Motor Trend’s YouTube channel.

The post, which has since been deleted but can be seen (thanks to the power of Google Cache) here, began:

“We have a confession. We messed up. We made an episode of World’s Fastest Car Show that got taken down from Motor Trend’s YouTube channel within hours of posting. We kind of screwed up and we paid for it.”

Here is where you would assume the folks behind WFCS would admit that they had tried to pass off a paid advertisement as regular old “car content”… but no. According to the Kinja post

“We basically ended up making a show that is totally different to what we had promised everyone. And a lot of Motor Trend viewers got pissed off at that. And the complaints flooded in. Apparently in unprecedented numbers. So, after just a few hours on their channel, the World’s Fastest Sedan show got pulled off and we well and truly needed to wipe all that egg from our faces!”

But obviously the problem wasn’t as simple as WFCS making a video that didn’t live up to the entertainment standards of Motor Trend’s discerning YouTube audience. And clearly the guys at WFCS are aware of this, as the post continued:

“The simple truth is this: we are not a review show. We are a show that focuses on fun, adrenaline, and luxury. We always have been. ‘World’s Fastest’ is produced by a very small group of people. And, by the way, it’s tough to survive in the online automotive jungle. Yet, we are making our way against some big competition, and we’ve succeeded (by our standards, at least) for going on five years. Nicolai Iuul, our resident Viking and a very talented chap, produces and directs every single episode. I host, and, beyond that, we put together each production with a small team of talented editors and cameramen, with whom we adore working. Viewers get to experience the ‘Worlds Fastest’ lifestyle for free, so somebody has to pay for all of this! No matter what the viewer may think, all forms of entertainment are underwritten by somebody with a fatter checkbook than the production team, especially in the world of free content. This is something we have never tried to hide or obfuscate, and, truthfully, we wouldn’t have it any other way. I repeat, our show is not about reviews. It is about experiences! I am fortunate to be able to drive cars that not everyone has access too, though they probably should. I love my job and I am very grateful.” [Emphasis added]

Take a minute to re-read that, and pay special attention to the emphasized portions. What the anonymous WFCS poster is saying is that

1) The video in question was “paid for”.

2) WFCS is proud of and transparent about its status as an advertorial outfit.

3) Consumers of free content have no right to demand disclosures about who paid for their content.

But if WFCS really believes these things, why didn’t it simply explain what happened: WFCS made an ad for FCA, it got posted to Motor Trend’s YouTube alongside regular “content” and without any kind of disclaimer and then got called out for doing the above? The answer: that could incriminate Motor Trend, thanks to FTC guidelines aimed at curbing misleading “native advertisements.” When WFCS responded to my concerns on Twitter, they downplayed the issue with the old “hey, nobody died” chestnut. I’m not an expert on FTC regulations, but somehow I don’t think the threshold for violation is death or acts of terror.

To be fair, though, WFCS isn’t the only bad guy here. WFCS’s presenter, former Le Mans winner Justin Bell clearly states at the WFCS website that

“We leave the proper car reviews to the other guys. We only drive the cars we love in the most spectacular locations and have a lot of fun doing it.”

This is probably not enough of a disclosure to keep the FTC at bay, but it does make it clear that WFCS is not in any way a journalistic enterprise. They just make fun content that is always positive. Fine. The problem arises when Motor Trend presents WFCS segments produced in partnership with brands, without disclosing that these segments are advertorials. If WFCS episodes were simply shown on airplane seatback screens, for example, there would be no question about what they are. This is a distribution problem, not a content problem. The responsibility (and potential legal risk) here lies with Motor Trend, not WFCS.

But that’s not to say the problem begins and ends with Motor Trend. Outlets with, shall we say, somewhat higher perceived credibility have posted or presented the WFCS episode in question without any disclosure that it is an advertorial. The Twitter account for BBC Autos termed the segment “#MustSee,” and USA Today’s Chris Woodyard wrote a post touting the “test” and its “surprise winner.” Needless to say, the publicly-funded and ethically constrained BBC would not knowingly urge its audience to watch an advertorial, nor would USA Today find it newsworthy that said advertorial concluded with a favorable outcome for its sponsor. The problem here is two-fold: first, WFCS does not in fact disclose who sponsors each episode it shows and second, even the more respectable “auto journalists” can’t tell the difference between editorial and advertisement anymore.

This entire episode shows how deeply problematic the state of “automotive content” has become: content creators don’t disclose that their work is in fact advertising, outlets like Motor Trend give these works the gloss of editorial content (if not credibility) and other outlets then pass it around as editorial content without stopping to question whether or not it is. Then the original content creator tries to “get in front of the story” by claiming it was “banned” without adequately explaining why, and accuses anyone questioning the situation of losing their perspective. This situation is not just a sign that the auto media is basically incapable of living up to the FTC’s regulations, it highlights the deep cultural rot that infects the auto media from top to bottom. Though “automotive journalists” see themselves as both reporters and consumer-facing “service journalists,” almost every one is also so much of an “automotive enthusiast” that they are often unable to distinguish between real editorial and paid advertising content.

At the end of the day, the situation is so entrenched that it makes little sense to even object to this situation on mere ethical grounds. After all, the line between the WFCS “Fastest Sedan” episode and the videos that many outlets produce at manufacturer-paid launch events is very fine. Even if the FTC were to throw the book at WFCS and Motor Trend, it wouldn’t change the fact that all “automotive journalist” have to put industry relationships ahead of transparency with readers in order to succeed. Rather, the auto media and more importantly the automakers themselves need to understand that the entire auto media system is fundamentally broken. Automakers like GM and Chrysler have sunk to the bottom of the most recent Harris Poll on America’s “most hated” companies, alongside such luminaries as big banks, oil companies and cable providers, and no amount of advertorials will bring them back. With competition ratcheting up and consolidation (not to mention potential disruption) looming, the auto industry is no longer well-served by a subservient press. If the auto media doesn’t radically rethink itself, from the ubiquitous enthusiast posturing through the uncritical coverage of all but the cheapest new cars, it will continue to be a major part of the industry’s broader decline into irrelevance.