Gosh, what can you do about a girl named Maria?
Or more to the point, what about that Dan Neil?
Neil, a thrashy and unrefined automotive critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in his regular “Rumble Seat” column of April 6, 2005 a piece about a new Pontiac car in a way that displeased its maker, General Motors.
I first heard about the story in today’s Toronto Globe and Mail, which reprinted it from the Wall Street Journal. The story, on page B10 of the Globe business section, opens with the line “General Motors Corp. has pulled its advertising from Tribune Co.’s Los Angeles Times for the foreseeable future, a GM spokeswoman said.”
A couple sentences down in the story it says “One person familiar with the situation says the amount is perceived by people in the ad industry as “highly significant” and that the action is seen as punitive.”
Now these words are music to my ears, Maria: “punitive,” “ad industry,” “General Motors,” and “Los Angeles Times.” Put those words into a google search and cover your children’s eyes, baby.
Then, just as I was contemplating how to go about the difficult digging (i.e. reaching for the google icon) to find just what the LA Times had done to GM, my colleague in the Ban Advertising Cars Overnight (BACON) movement, a certain “Rick,” sent me the following link:
“Pulitzer prize winning author and columnist
Dan Neil wrote this less-than-flattering
piece on the quality of GM’s auto products.”
Hmm. Write a bad review and the company pulls its ads? Is that what restaurants do? Is that what the movie industry does? Are we being a bit touchy, GM?
I mean, I can understand if the paper had come out in favour of public transit, or bicycle lanes, or car-free zones for Los Angeles. I can understand if a newspaper takes a stand that threatens what Freund and Martin call “The Ecology of the Automobile” in any significant way. I can understand if the LA Times had made up some story, say, about how “General Motors” had “conspired” to “buy up” and “destroy” the “public transit system” of “Los Angeles” in the “1930s.” Gosh, a story as crazy as that would make me get all steamed, if I were GM.
But a bad review?
The LA Times is probably hoping GM comes to its senses. Maybe they’ll have Dan Neil write a retraction.
Bad idea, LA Times. If the industry thinks it can hammer down its critics by withdrawing funds, doesn’t that suggest something’s a little “off” in the ad kitchen? What is an ad, after all. It’s not a bribe, is it?
I’ve written to the LA Times offering them some free advice. Now I’ll give it to the Globe and Mail. Why don’t you newspapers try something radical. Try a moratorium on all car ads for a while. Try it for a single issue of the paper. See if your writers notice anything different.
My guess is those ads exert more pressure than you’re willing to admit. My guess is if newpapers stopped running car ads, they would find their editorial line could free itself substantially. No more pussy-footing around about the relationship of war to petroleum. No more wondering if a comment on global warming and the melting of the ice cap might aggrieve an SUV dealer. No more need to toe the line of “balanced transportation” types, who in the guise of “fairness” argue for more freeway dollars in exchange for mass transit or bicycle infrastructure.
It’s time to question if the harm done by cars reaches beyond the simple fouling of air and land. It’s time to dig into our psyches and ask if advertising a car is any different than advertising cigarettes or firearms: a product that causes more harm than good.
Okay, so what about that Dan Neil column anyway.
I went to the site and found a bunch of gibberish. Fact is, I don’t know the corporate structure of GM, so Neil’s opening salvo, which takes down the president and CEO and overall executive branch of the company, left me in the dark.
He wrote stuff like “…At a time when SUV sales are cliff-diving, GM proposes to speed up big SUV development and 86 the mid-size, rear-drive future products?”
This move, Neil compared to “rearranging deck chairs” (on a sinking ship) and said it was time for a “putsch” at GM headquarters. “…the best case for a putsch in GM’s Renaissance Center offices is this: The cars aren’t selling.”
He made a number of other pithy observations about the decision making at GM. The overall tenor of the piece is of sadness. He’s actually sentimental about what he sees as mismanagement and a trend toward mediocrity at GM. I mean, the guy is so out of touch, he actually seems to like cars.
Neil’s actual review, of a car called the Pontiac G6, has lines like “The G6 is not an awful car. It’s entirely adequate. But plainly, adequate is not nearly enough.”
Fact is, I don’t read car reviews very often, and I just don’t get what Neil means when he says something like “It is because of this powertrain that the phrase “thrashy and unrefined” has become the hackneyed cliché that it has.”
I mean, if I had come up with the phrase “thrashy and unrefined” I would be pretty proud of myself. Turns out it’s a cliche. Who knew?
Obviously, the car review is secondary in GM’s objections to Neil. They’re probably hoping the LA Times will dump him for being an anarchist.
Consider his throwaway reference to capitalism: Capitalism is creative destruction. Sit down, Mikhail Bakunin!
It may not seem like much, but for the ALLDERBLOB (and all my BACON-lovin comrades), I claim this as our first victory. Thank you, Dan Neil. Keep up the good work.