Dear fellow motoring writers, and anyone else who ever picks up a story attempting to cover new vehicle sales.
One thing I was taught right at the beginning of my career as a motoring writer, the very first time I ever needed to cover the topic of new vehicle sales for the news sections of magazines I worked for back then, was that a big chunk of those sales are not for private use but for businesses big and small.
Why does this matter?
Because the answer to ‘who is buying these vehicles?’ will frame the entire story. And if it’s framed incorrectly, statements in the story, if not the whole story, can be misleading.
In order to interpret the sales figures with any sort of useful meaning about general consumer (household) spending – whether it’s in the context of a financial crisis, or a global pandemic, or any other external factor – this additional detail about “who” must be correctly disclosed.
Similarly, the data about “who” must be known before accusing any particular vehicle, or brand, of being “popular” with the Australian public.
It’s not popular with the public unless they’re willingly buying them, and if that’s not happening in significant numbers until they’re sold as ex-fleet hacks, then you’re looking at the wrong data to make that accusation at this time. Using new sales totals to determine popularity makes it a future prediction at best, and even if the used sales data was tracked properly it would be meaningless anyway from a social-commentary standpoint because a flood of availability is not the same thing as popularity.
The custodians of this statistical information however, are very happy for complete ignorance in this area from journalists and their readers. They actually seem invested in it, which I guess made at least a little sense back in the days when we had a local manufacturing industry for them to try and protect.
Puffing up the perception that the Australian-made (or at least the Australian-assembled) vehicles were a more “popular” choice with the Australian public certainly served the industry’s purposes, even when some imports broke into the top ten, or more likely top five, top three and sometimes even the top spot.
How many times did you read that the erstwhile Holden Commodore was Australia’s most popular car? The historical sales figures say it was, many times, for a long time. And it was very popular, for a very long time. But new vehicle sales of boring base-model V6 autos to fleets was never the right way to support that claim, because that then meant it had to be acknowledged that the cheap-and-cheerful fleet-favourite that was allegedly “popular” for another long period was – oh gosh, really? – the rather plain and uninspiring-at-the-time Corolla.
You won’t find harder PR spin than you do in the motoring industry
Seriously, you won’t find harder PR spin than you do in the motoring industry, mostly because nobody was ever willing to call them out on it. You should also expect it from the marketing departments of manufacturers – that’s literally the PR person’s job – and yet that seems to get swallowed whole a disappointing proportion of the time too.
What you need to do is recognise that spin for what it is. Ask yourself some questions – usually, what crucial piece of information have they left out? – and then write a story choosing language that doesn’t create a misleading interpretation for the reader.
Here’s an idea. Pretend each media release came from a politician’s office. We question the daylights out of those, and wonder what they’re really up to, then actually investigate the real truth of the situation (especially if we don’t know the backstory already) before interpreting that information and condensing it into a suitable piece for the public to digest.
Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.