Groveling for Advertisers
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, December 11, 2006
Al Lewis is a columnist at the Denver Post. He can turn a funny phrase. John Elway is the greatest quarterback Denver’s football team has ever had. When he retired in the 1990s, he did what man sports stars do when they don’t know how to function unless their face is regularly on television. He became a car salesman. A company called AutoNation based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, hired him as its spokesman. And there John Elway remained all these years, pitching cars. A little while back AutoNation decided it had had enough of John Elway. It’s replacing him with a new spokesman. Or rather, a new jingle. The word “Go.” A dumb line, to be sure. “We wanted a name that would be energetic and fun,” a company flacker explained to Al Lewis (that’s the columnist). All right. No surprise there: car dealerships are into selling cars, not reinventing creativity. But columnists should be in the creativity business, and Lewis seemingly was. After making fun of AutoNation’s decision to dump Elway in his November 30 column, and providing a few interesting bits of information about car buying in the internet age, Lewis made this funny, accurate observation about the trade—a truth as unchanging as the law of gravity: “Buying a car often involves a salesperson humping your leg like a Chihuahua until you find a car you like on the lot. You then make an offer and the Chihuahua takes it to a bulldog sales manager who growls new numbers at you. Then comes a finance manager who barks up a new deal.” He then wrote a few more paragraphs about the smarter ways of buying cars, and wrapped it up. A week later, at the bottom of a column about home sales, he wrote this (the capitals are his): “I AM DOGGONE SORRY: In last Friday's column, I compared people who sell cars to eager Chihuahuas in a phrase that conjured up distasteful mental imagery. Then I referred to dealership sales managers as bulldogs. Now I am the one in the doghouse. I apologize for offending those insulted by this language. I was trying to be funny, but I barked up the wrong tree.”
Groveling is one of the distasteful, disgraceful things about American journalism. It’s not ok to compare a car salesman to a Chihuahua or bulldogs, imagery that anyone who’s stepped into a car dealership would instantly connect with. But it’s perfectly fine to let the journalist himself be compared to a dog (isn’t Bob Woodward glad to be known as Washington’s attack dog, at least back in those days before self-flattery and power defanged him? Hell, the local high school’s mascot, like a thousand mascots across the continent, is a bulldog). But car dealerships have power, too. They’re usually among the mainstays of any newspaper’s advertising base. Say anything about them. One wrong word, no matter how innocuous, and it’s the end of the story for whomever wrote it. Either that, or groveling is in order. Even if what was said is accurate, imaginative, and offensive only to those who make it a habit to use their power to be offensive in return. In this case of course the offender isn’t the car dealerships. Car dealers will be car dealers. It’s the Denver Post, or Al Lewis, depending on who got whom to do the groveling bit. True, all this is a small matter in the scheme of things. But not when you realize what little self-respect some news outlets have for themselves, and how that’s reflected in cascades of daily coverage and condescension toward readers and viewers.