A media lesson from the auto industry

When I first started writing about culture years ago, it was already clear that technology was serving the masses in what was and is an on‐going quest for power over their own lives. There’s a fascinating story about the auto industry in today’s Wall St. Journal that reminded me of this, and it’s a powerful lesson for media companies as well.

To back‐up a bit, we’ve entered the postmodern era in Western culture. I use that term, but others call it post‐industrial, post‐colonial or post‐Christian. Regardless of what you call it, it includes a shift away from institutional power to individual power, and technology is its principal weapon. The illustration most used here is of the contemporary doctor, whose authority has dramatically changed as a result of the explosion of information that’s at the fingertips of most patients. The doctor is still the doctor, but her authority has changed.

This change is occurring at every level of every institution that governed the modern (industrial) world, and it’s both a frightening and exciting time to be alive.

The more I explored these changes, the more they became evident, which is why my first postulate is that the disruptive influences attacking media are all about people, not technology.

Fast‐forward to the Wall St. Journal article. The theme is that the CEO of AutoNation, the U.S.‘s largest chain of auto dealers, is asserting his clout in “suggesting” that Detroit change the way it makes cars. The issue is excess inventory at dealerships — billions of dollars worth of cars that are hard to sell. And why? Because nobody wants them.

At one AutoNation Inc. location in Delray Beach, Fla., scores of “orphan” vehicles have been sitting on the lot for months. One hulking silver Dodge Ram pickup has languished unsold for 237 days, an eternity by automotive standards. The problem? Chrysler equipped the truck with a V6 engine instead of the V8 requested by most buyers of big trucks.

Parked nearby is a red Jeep Grand Cherokee with four‐wheel drive, a feature popular in snowy climes but not sunny Florida. One Chrysler Sebring convertible is so loaded with options that its sticker price is $32,0000 — nearly as much as a BMW 3 Series.

“No customer would have asked for these vehicles that way, and they never should have been built that way,” says Mr. (AutoNation CEO Michael J.) Jackson. “This has to change.”

Sounds obvious, but it means completely re‐doing the century‐old, top‐down manufacturing concept originated by Henry Ford, who pumped out millions of nearly identical Model‐Ts. “You want a car,” the message was, “you take what we give you.”

The lesson for media is likewise obvious. The consumer is now in charge, folks, and we have no choice but to embrace a culture where customer choice is the mandate. Why is the late news in most markets dying? Because there’s little demand for it anymore. Why is the web growing as a source for news and information? Because it meets the wants and needs of people who are clearly in charge.

These profound cultural changes are like the proverbial frog in the cooking pot, and one day, institutional power will walk out the front door and not recognize anything. “What happened?” will be the hue and cry.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Interestingly, the Wall St. Journal article is behind its vaunted pay wall. Earth to Dow Jones…)


  1. http://thedetroitchannel says

    i travelled to chicago the other day and marvelled at the number of trucks carrying one or two used cars, alot of them were collector vehicles, but some plain vanilla. it strikes me that craigslist, ebay and any number of online sites have empowered the interested to reach out, sometimes clear across the country, and buy a USED car from somebody without ever “kicking the tires”.

    you’d think the car companies (all of them, not just ford, gm, and chrysler) would realize this and offer to build a NEW car to a buyer’s specs submitted via the net and bypass the entire “slick salesman” fiasco at dealerships and deliver the vehicle directly to the buyer. there are plenty of trucks already rolling with open space on them.

    autonation beware.

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