By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. There’s a current Chevrolet TV commercial in which the insipid voiceover mumbles something about Chevy being “the most-awarded car company.” It shows “real” people picking out the awards that they recognize arrayed on a wall, and lo and behold, Chevy has won all of them! That this is the focal point of an entire campaign speaks volumes about the current – and pathetic – state of automotive advertising, which goes something like this: When – as a client - you’re completely out of ideas and you’ve beaten every last vestige of creativity out of your ad agency, well then, there’s always the time-honored “let’s tout our awards” gambit.
But what does being “the most-awarded” car company really mean, exactly? And does anyone really care? I’ll answer those questions for you: 1. Not much. And 2. No.
To the average consumer it means a whole lot of nothing, but for the manufacturers? Well, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars touting awards, showcasing awards, marketing awards, and, in some cases putting stupid people in car commercials who appear to be getting way too excited about some meaningless awards that ultimately count for nothing.
Let’s take the various J.D. Power awards (Chevrolet features them as evidence of being the “most-awarded” car company), which, at the end of the day constitute one of the most brilliant marketing scams ever perpetrated on this business. I say scams because who’s kidding whom here? Anyone out there who can say with a straight face that an “initial quality” survey that covers the first 90 days of ownership of a vehicle is a meaningful barometer of long-term vehicle satisfaction is blissfully unaware, to put it mildly. But Power operatives have bamboozled the auto companies into investing staggering amounts of money to get good grades on that survey. Yes, of course Power has ginned-up long-term vehicle ownership surveys as well, but those tend to get lost in the shuffle of their own making and the manufacturers’ collective zeal for the “quick hit” 90-day surveys.
But you have to hand it to the original J.D. Power model – which has now been expanded to cover everything from hairbrushes to lawn mowers, seemingly – it truly is brilliant because it preys on the manufacturers' compelling desire to be liked and their woefully pathetic insecurities, and they'll pay through the nose for the “privilege” if it suits their marketing campaigns. Or they’re just flat-out of ideas, which is probably more to the point.
Yes, J.D. Power has piled up billions for being first and for giving the manufacturers validity, as sketchy as that may be, so they deserve all of the credit for seeing an opportunity, making the most of it and monetizing it beyond the company’s wildest dreams. But, unfortunately, the Power awards – I didn’t even bother to tally up how many there actually are - have launched a torrent of imitators, and with varying degrees of credibility, or, in some cases, absolutely no credibility whatsoever.
Let’s see, there are the endless series of Kelley Blue Book awards; the Autobytel Awards; the IIHS Top Safety Pick Awards; the Green Car of the Year Awards; the Motor Trend Car and Truck of the Year Awards; the Car and Driver 10 Best and Editors’ Choice Awards; the Automobile All Stars; the Edmunds.com TOPRATED and MOSTPOPULAR Awards (they must get extra traction for using ALL CAPS); the IntelliChoice Awards; the MotorWeek Drivers’ Choice Awards; the U.S. News Best Cars for the Money Awards (I know, right?); the Kiplinger Awards (ugh); something called the Strategic Vision Awards; the various Consumer Reports Awards and the Good Housekeeping Awards, etc., etc., etc.
I’m sad to say that these are just the high hard ones, because there are countless other awards out there designed to give notoriety to the publications and maybe get the editors higher on the invite list for the next new car reveal in Barcelona.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover the awards that exist in conjunction with the various auto shows (Peter has more to say about this in this week’s “On The Table” –WG). There’s the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards (soon to be joined by an SUV category); the World Car of the Year Awards and the ubiquitous “We Have An Auto Show So We Have To Give Out An Award” Awards.
And the cumulative effect of all of this awarding? Do you really have to ask? These awards blend into a vapor that has the staying power of the fumes that seep into your vents from the local Tim Horton's franchise as you pass by. In other words, sweet, sticky… and gone.
We’ve long since passed the time when this dance was so sordid that it even stood out at the height of the smarm ‘n slime-fest called the advertising business back in the day. How so? I distinctly remember working with my creative group for a week on a presentation to Petersen Publishing in the event that the Dodge Lancer ES “sport sedan” became the Motor Trend Car of the Year. We had to show them proposed ads and TV commercials – i.e., how much advertising money Dodge was willing to spend to tout the award - “if” it won. Fortunately that monument to mediocrity didn’t win, thank goodness but, as if I needed any prodding, after that any automobile awards became useless and baseless for me.
Look, I get the fact that America has become a go-along-to-get-along society, a dismal dance of mediocrity masquerading as “culture” where everybody makes the team and nobody actually loses a game. And I get that everyone is expected to get treats, a trophy and a hug for being wonderful and special in their own right. And I get the fact that the current climate rewards the entitled and coddled just for showing up, but the plethora of automotive “awards” is a complete travesty devoid of substance and it has been a recurring joke for a long, long time. Consumers, whether they’re committed enthusiasts or even the most mundane appliance shoppers, can see right through this charade and need much more than that.
It’s about brand image and the essence of product integrity. And it’s about these fundamental questions: What is the reason for being for the product? What can it do for me? And why should I care?
And it’s about the efficacy of what a manufacturer’s product actually represents, not the borrowed sheen of a meaningless award handed out by auto “journalists” looking for a better place in the queue. After all, if the recall notices are piling up like so much cordwood, these “awards” don’t really count for much, do they?
I realize that execs at every manufacturer are in love with their own fabulosity, but this infatuation, check that, this obsession with being rewarded for just showing up is nothing more than an insult to the business, and to the consumers they’re courting.
And it needs to stop.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week