Sometimes the people who cover the auto industry forget that their role is not nearly as important as the people who buy cars. If no one wrote, photographed, or recorded their first drive impressions of a Chevrolet Corvette, I imagine it would still sell. Awesomeness doesn’t need a hype man.
So, when Ford unveiled its refreshed Mustang during the public days at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, there was some grousing amongst the press. Others, quite publicly, have called for the Detroit show to move its dates to the spring or summer so the media – and the world – could see Motor City in a better, and perhaps, warmer light. It’s a not the first time this idea has been floated, but it seems more self-serving than solid PR.
It does make me wonder, yet again, who the auto shows are really for?
Well, the answer is you. They are called public days for a reason. All of those cars on display right now are for everyone who loves cars, reads about cars, takes pictures of cars, dreams about cars, and generally enjoys speed, crashes, and races. That is who the auto shows were made for. Yes, carmakers go out of their way to invite the media, hold parties, and celebrate some things automotive, and there are many people in the media very passionate about cars. But sometimes the media gets ideas turned around in their head and begin to believe that all of these free drinks and pigs in a blanket were meant for them personally.
The auto show is, has always been, and will always be, about selling cars. Everything else is merely puffery and unintended consequences.
They were not. They were meant for people who work for publications, television stations, Internet outlets that will publish things about the automaker. These outlets all do one thing that the carmakers want: Reach you. The media, well, we’re just the middle men.
There you are again. And really, while carmakers may put on a big show for a couple of days, car dealers – local car dealers – are the ones who put on the show. Their goal: To reach you.
The story for Detroit’s January show and Chicago’s February freezer is pretty straightforward. The heart of winter beats slowly when it comes to automotive sales. The auto shows act like a mild stimulant to boost sales. That’s it. The show is, has always been, and will always be, about selling cars. Everything else is merely puffery and unintended consequences.
Plus, all of these big auto shows are evolving quickly. Just as Ford proved that carmakers can use an auto show to reveal a car outside of press days, the company is only following the cue of the half-dozen carmakers who unveiled their vehicles the night before the press days. A single press conference can cost upward of $1 million at one of the major shows. That can add up pretty quickly into real money. Warehouse space and cocktails cost a lot less. Furthermore, the cadence of vehicles is much different. There could, right now, be a 2018, 2017, and 2016 vehicle in a dealer’s lot someplace. Long gone are the times when model years begin in the fall. Some years even get skipped. It’s January 2017, and you can buy a brand-new 2018 model year vehicle today.
While carmakers may put on a big show for a couple of days, car dealers – local car dealers – are the ones who put on the show. Their goal: To reach you.
While recent media days have calmed, and there’s this sense that the shows are less exciting, need to be moved to the summer or have their volume turned to 11, when you see people during the public days, you realize that is not nearly the case.
No, the public, especially Detroit’s public, loves the show. They may have to put on their long johns and Gortex boots, but the floor gets filled with fathers and sons, mothers and daughters walking through Cobo Hall, their mouths agape and eyes wide with wonder. Many have never missed the annual pilgrimage their entire lives.
I used to take my late uncle to the show every year. As a member of the Automotive Press Association, I was allowed to bring a few family members to a 7:00 AM breakfast in the media center and then onto the show floor 30 minutes before the doors opened to the public. By that Sunday, I was sick of the Detroit show, having spent the previous week there. But to watch him walk around was a gift. His sense of amazement and wonder, his unadulterated appreciation that I we were doing something no one else got to do added to the excitement, it would wash away all of my self-importance and cynicism.
So no, the show doesn’t need to move to a warmer date. And yes, Ford can do anything it wants. We’ll keep covering it. We know that and so does Ford. But the auto shows, all of them, the big ones and the small ones, don’t need the press there or even a single executive in attendance. They never did.
Scott Burgess has covered the auto industry for more than a decade as The Detroit News' auto critic and as Detroit Editor at Motor Trend. Before writing about cars and the people who make them, he was a newspaper journalist, where he covered everything from small town politics to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.