New York Times Covers Chrysler Corporation - With Praise and Love

The paper's breathless account of Chrysler's publicity stunt explains why fewer corporations are buying newspaper advertising - why pay when you can get it for free?

Granted, it sounded pretty cool. The new Jeep Wrangler, on display for the first time at the Detroit auto show, suddenly drives off the stage, through the convention center, and smashes through a plate-glass window. It speeds down the street and then up a fake white mountain, finally coming to a stop as Chrysler’s chief executive, Thomas W. LaSorda, jumps out of the passenger side and triumphantly pumps his fists in the air, Rocky-like.

It’s an interesting little anecdote, and might have made a nice lede for a longer article providing additional information about the obscene lengths to which car companies go to secure publicity, along with some best-guesses as to whether that publicity is actually translating into sales.

But you won’t find any such article in the New York Times. For that paper, the anecdote is the story — a prominently placed 1,400-word feature, no less. Read this breathless and slightly fawning account and you will understand why fewer corporations believe it is necessary to advertise in daily newspapers. Why pay when you can get it for free?

The Times notes that Chrysler will be able to judge the impact of its Hollywood-style spectacular after it “finds out how many TV stations across the country broadcast the … stunt, calculates the newspaper stories about it and gauges the attention the Jeep gets on the Web.” Without a hint of self-reflection, the article goes on to explain that “the hope is that newspapers write about them, television stations broadcast them, bloggers blog about them — all to entice consumers to buy.”

So, a company hopes its publicity stunt will generate publicity. It’s good thing we have the Times to challenge our assumptions. And, of course, it’s a good thing (for Chrysler) that the Times is so willing to oblige.

Indeed, the piece goes well beyond the call of duty, describing every last detail of Chrysler’s 15-minute production. We learn that the stunt took six months to plan, and we’re told all about the alternative stunts that were rejected. We’re given the full account of how Mr. LaSorda surprised everyone (yeah, right) by jumping into the Jeep’s passenger seat just before it took off. And we’re told that 74 computer-assisted drawings went into the show’s development (“56 for the part that took place inside the convention center, another 18 for the Jeep’s path across the street and up the fake mountain”).

It all reads so much like one of those videos they show on the company tour that we were going to suggest that the Times try to wangle at least a bit of cash from Chrysler by selling its story as a script. But then we logged on to the newspaper’s Web site and discovered that it had already produced the full video. Click on the icon, and watch the entire stunt — along with Times Detroit Bureau Chief Micheline Maynard raving about all the excitement generated by the pyrotechnics.

So, what about this new Jeep? Is it going to be a big seller? Unfortunately, the Times doesn’t provide any information about the vehicle itself or the car market. In fact, its video doesn’t even provide a glimpse of the new Wrangler because, as the story notes (way down toward the end), Chrysler’s stunt substituted “an old Jeep covered with vinyl pads to protect it from the flying glass.”

It is definitely newsworthy that car companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on extravagant (and slightly deceptive) seductions. But rather than focus on the implications of this largesse, the Times has produced a story that merely publicizes it.

And so, New York Times, on behalf of Chrysler, we would like to say how much we appreciate your efforts.

Thank you, thank you … you have really done too much.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.