I had the opportunity to be a guest on WDIV's Flashpoint yesterday. The show is the Detroit NBC affiliate's micro-sized version of Meet The Press. As you'd expect from a Meet The Press Detroit version — it was all about the auto industry, and this week the topic of the 2008 Detroit Auto Show was front and center. While I got a chance to talk about the enthralling topics of fuel economy (via GM's garbage-laden ethanol announcement on day one of the show), the marketing hype that is the hybrid and of course, GM and jobs. How exciting. I didn't get a chance to talk about the one thing I really wanted to talk about — the issue of "buzz."
See, the Detroit Auto Show is different from most auto shows. If this show in particular were only about trying to sell cars to people in Metro Detroit, it'd be a non-event — just one in an endless string of regional auto show non-events like the Boston Auto Show and the DC Auto Show. Except, Metro Detroit's the homeplace of the mass-market automotive industry, and that means our show's a little bit different than most.
The Detroit Auto Show isn't about selling cars to the people who come to the public show. No — the Detroit Auto Show is really all about using the carnival-like atmosphere that comes from having thousands of the world's media all in one place as a captive audience to your advantage. In the political world we would call it "earned media." It was what we termed using an event or public moment to craft a message at a relatively "minor" cost — having the news outlets do the work for us. Contrast that with the tens or hundreds of millions of "paid media" it might take via pricey Madison Avenue (or Maple Avenue — depending on which advertising firm we're talking about) commercials and advertisements. Not only is it more cheap to use the "unearned media" route, it comes with an added advantage. Unlike a huge ad campaign, it's usually better able to create the all-important "buzz" necessary to really resonate with the buying public. In the end, the uninformed masses will buy what trusted sources tell them to buy — and often that's the product that's generating the "buzz."
So why is the "buzz" so important? Better question — why do I consider it to be one of the biggest issues we need to address coming out of the 2008 Detroit Auto Show — and why was I disappointed I didn't get to talk about it on the air Sunday morning? Well, it's because the PR teams at the automakers, whether US or otherwise, appear to have forgotten how they get it because they're too busy clinging to this silly little thing that used to work so well for them — their precious "embargoes."
Yup, this tired and old subject again. You see, it used to be that an automaker would make the Detroit show a "jump ball" to the media — the reveal would occur at the show and everyone would get it at once. The outlets all published monthly and everyone was on an equal footing at getting the "news" out first. The product "news" was one part of a full-spectrum of features, and not the a priori subject. Now that's no longer the case come auto show season. But maybe we should get back to that.
It seems to me an automaker should be looking to use the unending thirst for new product information to their advantage by killing embargoes altogether — especially in a buzz-hungry forum like the Detroit Auto Show. And embargoes, being nothing more than an attempt by the automakers to control the media — don't appear to be doing anything but causing harm to buzz-creation. If an embargo will always be broken early and without any coordination whatsoever, wouldn't we think the automakers would seek to get back to a system of control? It seems to me we need to go back to a system where every outlet — the buff mags, the dailies, TV and the internet — is operating with the jump ball again? Wouldn't that create more excitement? Wouldn't that create more buzz? It seems to work well for companies like Apple and their MacWorld — a one day event that all media pays attention to.
The problem with the current Detroit Auto Show is there's no longer any buzz. The journalists in attendance have already seen everything revealed. It's hard to get excited about products we've already seen in embargoed briefings or via leaks of embargoed information. In fact, the one reveal this year that held any excitement whatsoever — that had any self-generated buzz? Why, it was the Cadillac CTS Coupe concept. And how'd that happen? Well — GM didn't provide any embargo access whatsoever. And oh look, they also didn't have any leaks of the product either. Maybe GM and other automakers should remember that reveal next year when they're deciding their auto show strategy. They should probably also remember it's damn hard for a buff-mag to build buzz — but it's really easy for the internet to do it. In the meantime I'm going to go and hunt around to see if anyone's dropped anything into the forums early for the Chicago Auto Show.