Toyota has sparked a controversy in Brazil for attempting to legally bar a media outlet that dared publish spy shots of a new Corolla from ever mentioning the Toyota brand name again. Jalopnik Brazil editor Leo Nishihata explains. — Ed.
About a month ago, spy shots of an upcoming Corolla published by the Brazilian blog Notícias Automotivas triggered something unheard of: an auto manufacturer attempting to permanently bar a media outlet from mentioning its brand. Now other outlets are starting to push back. Is it worth it, Toyota?
At first sight, the letter written by lawyer Rosana Bermejo is so superficial it could be phony. It wastes several lines extolling the history and image of Toyota in Brazil until it gets to March 23rd, when a post on Noticias Automotivas presented pictures and details of the Toyota Corolla S, a version to be launched in Brazil in 2012.
According to Eber do Carmo, editor-in-chief of Noticias Automotivas, the post has been written after spy shots were sent by a reader, and accurate info obtained from sources in the plant. (The article has been removed, but it is still available in Google cache.)
In its notification (PDF), Toyota claims that this release constitues "unfair business practice" and that "such release is unfit and unauthorized, causing Toyota a huge damage, once the release of those images spoils the customer's expectation towards news about the product."
Toyota then demanded the blog take down the article and photos of the Corolla S, and refrain from writing about Toyota models again — regardless of whether they were sold in Brazil or internationally.
The lawyer's statement may seem sensible to people who do not follow auto industry news. For enthusiasts, it sounds awkward and unrealistic. Magazines and websites dedicate many pages to anticipating manufacturers' future plans. Every week some new spy shot is taken by photographers near major factories, or by readers who come across something different in car dealerships, and even suppliers and employees who decide to take a brief look on their own. During a quick conference with other editors, we have tried to remember a national model that hasn't gone through this kind of spying. We can't think of any, nor any journalist who has been sued for revealing some "secret" through such shots.
The most delicate story of this kind in Brazil occurred in 1973 when a crew from Quatro Rodas car magazine was hit by shots fired by security working for Volkswagen as they followed two prototypes of the Brasilia. The security guards were Army reserve officers at a time when Brazil was ruled by the military dictatorship. The cameras were broken but the film got to the editors and the spy photos were published. Meanwhile, VW organized a lunch with stakeholders as a way of apologizing for what happened
Recently, Volkswagen sent a similar takedown notice to designer Du Oliveira for his renderings and redesigns of the brand's classics that he published in his blog just as a hobby. Probably due to a backlash, the German manufacturer claimed it was a misunderstanding, and that the notification was made by a Brazilian law firm without its knowledge.
To Eber do Carmo, Toyota's attitude is an example of how blogs are snubbed by some brands. "It (Toyota) totally ignores the blogs, not inviting them to launch events and also ignoring requests for vehicles for evaluation." Furthermore, it is noteworthy that no Brazilian automotive publication had ever been target of actions of any kind, even for publishing monthly spy shots. Marlos Ney Vidal, a journalist responsible for the greatest number of reveals in recent years and editor of AutosSegredos has never received an injunction this way, despite some verbal threats.
Several sites, blogs and columnists have spoken against the notification. Flavio Gomes, host of ESPN Brazil, said in his blog that "it's an exemplary piece of ‘lawyerish idiocy.'" The Truth About Cars highlighted the occurrence, Argentina Autoblog, the leading argentine automotive website, linked pictures of the Corolla S in their posts without receiving a warning for it. Some readers note that the photos from Autoblog Argentina were taken in a public road, while Notícias Automotivas shots were apparently taken inside a dealer or a Toyota plant. This could be considered some confidentiality violation, but curiously the notification says nothing about that.
Eber says that if he had received a simple e-mail requesting the removal of the photos, he would have done it, without threat of legal action, and that despite having taken the post off, he will continue publishing news about Toyota.
Our opinion? Toyota should change their attitude about the notification and about sites and blogs. Otherwise, it will start an unnecessary controverse with Noticias Automotivas 2.7 million monthly unique visitors and aggregate antipathy to the brand image for absolutely nothing. Nothing. After all, who really cares about a Corolla equipped with a rear spoiler?
This story originally appeared on Jalopnik.com.br on May 2, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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