The subject line of the email read, “VIP INVITE - Toyota Winter Olympics Travel Experience.” And upon reading the body, Toyota was clearly serious about the VIP treatment. An all-expenses paid, 10-day trip to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics, plus fun perks, but not for private guests or friends—for journalists. A vacation, essentially, for hardworking reporters!
The way car manufacturers get reviews of their vehicles out into the world happens generally one of two ways: by loaning cars to writers for several days, or by bringing them out on drive junkets. On the latter, the car companies pay for these writers’ airfare and hotels and shower them with lavish accommodations they could normally only dream of on their paltry writer salaries, all in hopes of getting a positive review out there.
It’s an ugly system and one that’s rightfully looked down upon by those who hold to traditional standards of journalism. (Some outlets even insist on paying their own way to avoid such conflicts of interest.) But at its core, there is a built-in quid pro quo: we bring you out and feed you shrimp, you hopefully say something nice about the car, the carmakers say. The level of influence said shrimp has on the review varies from writer to writer.
At the very least, a junket has some value to the writer’s audience, as it accompanies a product review that may or may not influence their car-buying decisions.
But why in the hell is Toyota, which the last time we checked is a maker of cars, putting together an extraordinarily elaborate “front-row VIP experience” at the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, all for a program that involves no car testing at all?
Earlier this month, Jalopnik received an invite for an all-expenses paid trip from a marketing agency on behalf of Toyota. It mentioned briefly Toyota’s “Start Your Impossible” campaign (whatever that means) and promised an “amazing coverage opportunity” at the games, including the chance to see snowboarder Chloe Kim and skiier Ted Ligety in action.
The trip would be 10 days long and would also include, to quote Toyota:
- Access into multiple Olympic events
- Immersive cultural excursions including a visit to the famous Jagalchi Fish Market, the chance to relax at mega-sauna SpaLand, and more
- Exciting challenges including a polar bear swim at Haeundae Beach, an escape room adventure, and a taekwando class
- Complimentary breakfast/lunch/dinner, transportation and daily excursions
In an email, the PR rep from Toyota’s agency here, The Brand Amp, confirmed that there would indeed be no product news associated with this opportunity.
If you think this sounds like an Olympic vacation that a “journalist” doesn’t have to pay for themselves, well, that’s what it sounded like to us, too. And which journalists, exactly?
In a phone call a few days later, a spokesperson from Toyota first apologized, saying that the invite mistakenly went out to Jalopnik and confirmed again that there was no drive or product to review. It was intended for “lifestyle” outlets, like Rolling Stone or Men’s Journal, the person suggested. (It’s not clear if either were invited or if they accepted. We reached out to both publications for comment and will update if we hear back.)
These were the outlets that Toyota wanted to tell its “we’re an automaker but we’re shifting to a mobility company now” story to because, as it was explained to us, these outlets and their readers still tend to think of Toyota as a company that, you know, makes cars. Because that’s what Toyota does: It makes cars.
Yet, what value Toyota hoped to gain from the trip was still unclear.
The Toyota spokesperson went on to say that it wanted to give the media a chance to meet with the 19 U.S. athletes that Toyota was sponsoring for the Games, learn more about the Olympics, “how they are connected to a mobility company,” and just more about sponsorships in general and why Toyota is sponsoring them. “Human interest stories,” the rep offered. This was all news to me.
It’s true that the U.S. government doesn’t sponsor its Olympic teams like the Russian government does, so it’s nice that Toyota has stepped in to help these athletes accomplish their dreams. Toyota is a big company with lots of money and it can do whatever it wants with that money.
But it still doesn’t explain all of the other wild perks or “South Korea experience destinations” that the original invite included.
In fact, that original invite didn’t even really mention Toyota sponsoring these 19 athletes, only that the company was an “official partner of the International Olympic Committee”—which is singing a very different tune than what the Toyota rep gave us. Was I supposed to know about the sponsorships before getting the invite? Because I had no idea.
Again, automakers routinely spend thousands of dollars on trips like these, inviting journalists out to experience their new cars, but also sweetening the deal with nice hotel bookings, fancy dinners, unrelated excursions and unlimited alcohol.
Everyone at Jalopnik has participated in such events before, and our policy is to at least always fully disclose what was paid for by automakers and what was not. In an ideal world, one day the site will pay its own way for all trips, much like Consumer Reports and the New York Times. At the very least, our goal has always been to remain as fair and unswayed by the comforts that automakers have thrown our way as we possibly can.
But none of that even matters here, since there’s no driving, and no Toyotas to even write about.
Clearly, Toyota wants coverage for its Olympics sponsorship—why wouldn’t it?—and admittedly the chance to interview the athletes at the Games is very exciting. You get to capture all of their excitement, anxieties, rage and triumphs as they’re happening. It beats conducting an interview over the phone for sure.
But that being said, if this was truly the experience Toyota wanted journalists to have, then why include all the vacation shit? Why a visit to the fish market and a polar bear swim? What do those things have anything to do with Toyota, the Olympics, sponsorships or the athletes? It makes the coverage seem secondary to the VIP experience, and one wonders how these journalists—who are not sports journalists, by the way—will have time to get any meaningful journalism done in between all the fancy dinners and “mega-sauna” experiences.
As for how Jalopnik got this invite, I will speculate a bit here, but I suspect this was in part a PR fuck up. Toyota probably outsourced the duty to the marketing agency, sent instructions about the event, told them to build a list of outlets to invite and to handle the travel details. Yet, that agency was still acting on behalf of Toyota, so we can also assume that Toyota was in agreement with everything that it was doing, including the wording of the original invite.
That’s the same invite that went out to all the outlets, though! Which means that there are journalists who saw it and accepted this fairly egregious bit of access journalism anyway.
Let’s not act like this is some Toyota-specific issue. Every automaker does shit like this. But this trip’s purpose is even more dubious in value for the automaker than most others and its return on investment is extremely questionable.
And if we’re being completely honest, the people who look the worst here are the “journalists” who go. We eagerly await Instagram posts of their Taekwondo classes and polar bear swims and the ensuing “lifestyle” coverage. It’s a good gig if you can get it, and if you have no ethics.