By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. It seems like only yesterday that The High-Octane Truth made its out-of-the-blue debut on the Internet on June 1, 1999. Wait a minute, what the hell am I saying? That’s not accurate in the least, because Janice (WordGirl) and I have experienced every single moment of this journalistic adventure over the last fifteen years, from the highs to the lows and through a kaleidoscope of every possible emotion in between.
As a few of you know, I first envisioned Autoextremist back in 1986 as a new automotive print publication, one aimed at hard-core enthusiasts but devoid of advertising, so that we could say exactly what needed to be said. I intended to blow the lid off of what had become the status quo in the automotive buff book industry, because it had become oh-so-stale, a banal slog of rote regurgitation designed to please the car companies and not ruffle any feathers, so that the press cars would keep coming and the new model intro trips to cool places would continue on unimpeded.
Ironically The Autoextremist Manifesto, a lengthy, passionate memo that I had written to WordGirl presenting my plan for the publication, is something I do remember as if it were yesterday, because every single word in it rings true with what Autoextremist.com became.
But back in 1986 I was still up to my eyeballs in my automotive advertising career, and the prospect of soliciting funding seemed daunting at the time. (In the end that was fortuitous, given the crumbling state of the car magazine business today.)
As I continued on with my automotive ad career, I became excruciatingly aware that the winds of change were overwhelming the business as practiced here in the Motor City. These were ill, misbegotten winds powered by lowest-common-denominator thinking and abject mediocrity, and they shook and rattled and pummeled the business, eventually swallowing Detroit whole.
The slow, steady swoon of Detroit was palpable, and I could feel it taking hold of what once was a shining beacon of this country’s industrial might and squeezing the very life out of it. Good enough became good enough, profits trumped creativity and innovation became anathema. It was a giant, festering bowl of Not Good.
I could see it in many (but thankfully not all) of the clients I worked with too. The good ones either had grown tired of getting beaten down by the system, or they just didn’t care anymore. And the bad ones, maliciously incompetent and blissfully unburdened with spinal structure, got promoted. The cars were stale and paled in comparison to the burgeoning Asian and European competition, and the prevailing industry attitude bordered on being comatose, as if it was on a giant death march to oblivion.
And incredibly enough, that’s exactly where it was going.
And what was even more distressing is what the auto advertising business had become. What once was a manically (and maniacally) intense and creative endeavor populated by characters bristling with talent had devolved into a mind-numbing circus of order takers, walking-talking insults to the swashbuckling legacy of the ad business. And it was both disheartening and truly pathetic.
If I had grown agitated with the status quo back in ’86, by the mid-90s I had become a seething cauldron of intense frustration. This wasn’t the car business I had been born into and grown up in, and this wasn’t the advertising business I loved. This was something altogether different, a sick dance of relentless, mind-numbing, go-along-to-get-along mediocrity, with spineless weasels carrying wan expressions on their faces locked arm in arm as they – and the business itself - pirouetted right off a cliff.
By the early spring of ’99 I had finally had it. We had been working on the launch campaign for the 2000 Chevrolet Impala, one of the blandest, committee-think cars I had ever seen come out of GM and Detroit. It was almost unbearable to be ushered into the bowels of GM Design the summer before and have people who knew better try to tell us that this was The Shit and that they were so proud of it. It was The Shit, alright, in all of its stinking glory.
And my last advertising agency, Campbell-Ewald, embarrassed itself mightily by taking the safest course possible for this blandtastic Impala by pushing one of the most mediocre ad campaigns for a car I had ever witnessed. Let me correct that, it wasn’t advertising at all, but an apologetic facsimile of advertising so offensive that it was beyond appalling. And the clients gleefully signed off on it.
As soon as I witnessed that debacle I didn’t even wait to get to my office, I went to the client phone outside of the presentation room and called WordGirl and said, “I can’t take this bullshit for one more minute.” And after listening to me vent (a skill she has much experience with, believe me), Janice said, “There’s always Autoextremist.”
From that moment on Autoextremist.com started to come into focus, and on June 1st, 1999, it made its debut on the Internet, with help from a guerilla email marketing campaign I devised.
Using a combination of my middle name and my mother’s maiden name as my byline - I was still at the ad agency and needed to be anonymous – my first column was entitled ‘White Boy Culture” and it set the tone that defines Autoextremist to this day: Unapologetically blunt, fiercely combative and utterly relentless, and we were off and running. (I left the agency some three months later, revealing my real name in the following week’s issue.)
I’m proud to say that there was never any “phoning it in” with Autoextremist.com. And there was never a thought of “we’ll get to it when we get to it” about this publication, either. We had a weekly deadline and we stuck to it because after all, if we were going to blow the lid off what passed for automotive “journalism” back then - which was piss-poor by every measure imaginable - we were going to bring the high hard ones every single week in a style that had never been seen before in the business.
I set out to influence the influencers with Autoextremist.com. I wanted to lead the discussion in this business because things weren’t being talked about; instead they were just dutifully reported on and quietly filed away. Here the Motor City was crumbling and this was the best automotive “journalism” could do? I wouldn’t stand for it and I couldn’t let it go. Things were going to change, if it was the last thing I was able to accomplish. (See more highlights from the fifteen years of Autoextremist.com in "On The Table." - WG)
And change they did. Autoextremist.com influenced a whole new generation of publications and writers in this business. I named names and exposed the mediocrity wherever I could. I talked about things other scribes would talk about only in “deep background” or at the bar, but were all thinking and itching to say, but couldn’t or wouldn’t write. But I did, and I’m gratified to say we still do it today.
AE altered the way auto company PR honchos did their jobs, too, because what we did and how we did it basically changed their basic approach to everything. They had to, because it was a brave new world out there and the Genie - aka The High-Octane Truth – was out of the bottle, and we weren’t going back to the way things were ever again.
But mindful of all of that, it’s no secret that fifteen years later this business has fundamentally changed. After the two momentous bankruptcies that shook the domestic automobile business to its very core, how could it not?
Yes, this business has finally gotten product religion, and that’s a much-needed and positive development. It’s sad that the Motor City chapter of the business damn-near imploded for it to happen, but at least it happened.
But then again are things really all that different? I’m sad to report that in too many areas they aren't, and that is disgusting as much as it is depressing.
Just because the car companies believe in the product doesn’t mean they aren’t susceptible to making the same mistakes over and over again. I see it every day in this business too. Dumb product decisions combined with tentative or misguided marketing programs is an ongoing recipe for disaster that still plays out with shocking regularity. And as Chris Rock so eloquently puts it, That ain’t right.
Add the rabid idolatry of the Digital Age to all of this, with clients mindlessly embracing the new-age word of mouth – the vaunted social media - with sometimes little rhyme or reason, and that has complicated matters even further. This just in: the use of social media will never mask a flawed product or a bad idea. I just wish more marketing executives in this business would step back, take a deep breath, and really understand what that means. But that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, I’m afraid.
I also see too few glimmers of real spark in the auto advertising business, which to me is flat-out inexcusable. The threat of clients yanking business away on a whim has led ad agencies to abandon their subject expertise and veer toward a dismal cadence of playing it safe, unwilling to push back, becoming mere order takers more often than not. And that is so much unmitigated bullshit too.
The old adage in the ad biz is that clients get the advertising they deserve, and that is so very true. But when auto manufacturers have too many poseurs and un-mentored amateurs in their marketing departments making pivotal decisions, and advertising agencies mirror that behavior with spineless puppeteering, the results are never good, and then they both get exactly what they deserve.
The global nature of this business has changed everything as well. Automakers are skewing new product development and intensive marketing efforts to China, which is now the single largest transportation market in the world. And that’s a fundamental shift with massive ramifications that are still playing out. And it’s not necessarily a good thing, either. Yes it means giant, unforeseen future profits, but where the business is heading because of it is anyone’s wild-ass guess.
This country has changed, too, and that is having a fundamentally life-altering effect on this business. The drums of the anti-car intelligentsia are beating loudly, fueled by the autonomous cars movement, and the hatred from politicians in Washington, the Northeast and Northern California of anything and everything to do with the automobile. The din has now grown beyond an occasional annoyance to a full-blown national agenda, and where that is heading is nowhere good, you can count on it.
And the social networking currency of the car culture-fueled 60s – the automobile - has gone by the wayside, too, replaced by digital devices that have eliminated the need for getting in cars and socializing. And with The Coddled and Entitled generation, who have been driven around their entire lives and who are finding it difficult to believe that cars aren’t just yesterday’s icky news, this business is facing a difficult future to say the least, and right in its own backyard too.
But then again, as much as this business has changed in fifteen years and as much as the anti-car forces are flexing their muscles to end everything to do with the automobile as we know it, I retain a shred of optimism for the automobile and the business surrounding it.
The freedom of mobility remains an intensely powerful notion. And when you get out from behind the cacophony generated by the media centers in this country – which is unending and with unfailing certainty buries the automobile and everything associated with it with emphatic glee – you realize that the rest of the country doesn’t feel that way. You realize that people not only still need cars, they actually like cars too. And kids outside of the group-hugging social media enclaves still look forward to getting their driver’s licenses, which, according to the media reports, doesn’t happen anymore.
The anti-car intelligentsia would have us believe that in a matter of a few years we will be free and unfettered of the tyranny of the automobile, that with a flip of a switch we will order-up our clown cars with our cell phones and it will all be lovely and good. We will become a nation of shiny, happy, anesthetized smiley faces blissfully unaware of anything going nowhere, slow.
But they’re forgetting one very basic thing about the automobile that is still true to this day, and that is the enjoyment of getting behind the wheel and going nowhere in particular, which is still possible by the way, to the disgust and dismay of those who want it all to end. And that pure enjoyment is not going away anytime soon, either.
And to those who point to the world’s ever-dwindling resources as a sure sign that the Automobile Era is over, that we can’t possibly continue along this path and that it needs to all come to an end with a resounding, penalizing thud, I see a machine like the BMW i8 - which represents a transportation future with every bit of the excitement intact, if not more - and I get turned on about this business all over again.
Autoextremist.com has been an exhilarating ride. Make no mistake, it has been a tough 24/7 slog for me personally, consuming everything I have to give – and then some - in a relentless quest that never ends, but that’s the way it had to be when we started, and it’s still that way today.
Some people take great umbrage with the fact that I get personal with my columns, but I scoff at that criticism and here’s why: When you’re immersed in this business like I have been for as long as I have, it’s all personal. I can assure you, when you talk to the people who live it and breathe it and who are in the trenches, and whose lives and families’ lives are consumed by the automobile business and everything associated with it every day, you’re damn right it’s personal.
This business isn’t a place for the faint of heart. It never has been and it never will be, either. If it were that easy, everyone could do it, but it isn’t and I prefer it that way.
I often talk about the True Believers in this business, the people with the talent, the ones who do the real work and who make these car companies hum, and I am in awe of what they do, because without their commitment this business would sink into a permanent state of mediocrity and simply implode. As long as the product remains King, and the True Believers remain true to that mission and continue to believe in it, then I’m confident this business will weather any challenges put forth by the gathering storms to come.
In a closing personal note, if you were wondering if my passion for the automobile and the business surrounding it has cooled, you’d be sadly mistaken.
I still rail against mediocrity with a passion as raw and fueled with outrage as the day Autoextremist.com went live. Living in a world of reduced expectations is simply unacceptable, and not an option for the auto industry, or the country for that matter either. I remain constantly vigilant and on the lookout for signs that this business is sliding back into the bad old habits, when “good enough was good enough” and mediocrity became business as usual.
And I’m not going to let it go.
This just in: Mediocrity isn’t bliss. And it never will be. This business can do better, much better, and I will continue to call out the unenlightened and spineless hordes, continue to chastise the ruthlessly arrogant and the pathologically incompetent, continue to cajole and campaign the capable to do great things, and continue to comment on this business with a passion and an unbridled fervor that show no signs of diminishing anytime soon. I intend to step on the pedal hard, until further notice.
Thank you for coming along with us on the journey.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth, heading into our sixteenth year.