Sunday, June 04, 2006

What if a Car Review is Too Harsh? Or Uses the V-Word?

Robert Farago of The Truth About Cars is having a little dispute with BMW over a Lexus review that was judged overly harsh and a Subaru review that observed a certain likeness in the Tribeca B9's grille and a woman's vagina.

BMW has opted to withdraw TTAC's access to BMW test cars. You can read the reaction among some automotive critics here.

Whatever one thinks of the propriety of comparing a vehicle's front end to a part of a woman's anatomy, the truth is the Tribeca's front end is strange looking, regardless how you choose to describe it. The first time I saw it, I was reminded of the Edsel's grille, which was also compared by folks in the industry if not in the 50s media to another female anatomical feature in the same region.

The fact BMW was willing to withdraw a reviewer's access to its test fleet because of an objection to a review as too harsh is more serious. It's not a First Amendment issue because the Constitution doesn't guarantee any of us in the car review business access to the manufacturers' test fleets.

But BMW's PR executives have created an entirely unnecessary credibility problem for themselves. Making access to test fleet vehicles dependent in some degree to the favorability of a reviewer's published comments suggests the company's PR types fear that without leverage of this kind somebody somewhere might say something negative about their products.

Not smart, not smart. Makes about as much sense as GM's decision last year to withdraw advertising from The Los Angeles Times to protest reviewer Dan Neil's comments about the Pontiac G6. All that decision accomplished was subjecting GM to a couple of weeks of withering criticism that invariably included analyses of the troubled giant's product deficiencies.

BMW is not GM, to be sure, but in an age in which the Internet puts everybody in contact with everybody in real time, there is no place for a defensive pr strategy that seeks to control or otherwise limit commentary about the product. It's an exercise in futility.

Especially when the critic involved is among the most talented writers in the automotive journalism galaxy and who is surely sufficiently resourceful to find alternative methods of accessing your firm's vehicles.