Chrysler's Twitter Controversy Teaches Us 'Brand Journalism' Is a Lie

Conversation With Brands? More Like Advertising in Disguise

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
Austin, Texas. Land of contrasts.

Here the majestic capitol dome towers over the asphalt plain, bustling inside with Republicans in crisp white shirts, yet swarming in a five-mile radius with lefty University of Texas students, egghead academics, dissolute musicians and inked-up hipsters in porkpie hats.

Here the digirati have swarmed, too, like wasps around a spilled Dr Pepper. Dell, AMD, Freescale Semiconductor and a dozen other tech firms have attracted them by the thousands: geeks in cowboy boots, herding zeros and ones on the vast Silicon Prairie. And during SXSW, thousands more.

It all makes for a little cognitive dissonance, for me no less than anyone else. For who but I sat, on the first day of SXSW, moderating a panel called "Brand Journalism"? Brand. Journalism. Hey, kids, let's sing! Which of these things is not like the other? Which of these things doesn't belong?

Obviously, the nouns are incompatible. Journalism is conducted at arm's length, and brands have grasping hands. But maybe that's why the hall was standing-room-only. Oxymorons are a conversation starter. Indeed, from the very outset, even the sponsor of the panel -- JWT North America CEO David Eastman -- acknowledged the contradiction in terms. It's not about the name, he said. It's about the process.

With that out of the way, we seemed to be free to hash out the role of brands as brokers of content about themselves: blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter streams, videos, whether created in house or harvested from the Great Everywhere Else. It was a lively discussion about everything you'd expect: telling brand stories, employing journalistic tools, establishing relationships, building trust, ceding control, measuring results. JWT, to its everlasting credit, talked up not only its own successes on behalf of Ford and Pepsi, but also supplied examples from beyond the WPP fold, notably McDonald's.

But, still, something nagged. It wasn't the elephant in the room, exactly. It was more like the canary in the coal mine. A little blue canary.

Just as SXSW was getting under way, Chrysler had cut ties to a social-media contractor after one of its employees hit send on the following tweet: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive."

The junior employee behind the message, 28-year-old Scott Bartosiewicz, explained that he had meant to send it from his personal account, but clicked the wrong box on his Twitter deck. Perhaps that is why Chrysler, instead of stoning him to death, merely fired him.

Fired him for being funny. Fired him for being spontaneous. Fired him for being relevant. Fired him for alighting ever so gently, like a canary taking its perch, on a dowel of human truth. You know -- the way social media is supposed to be, because the whole point of it is to discard archaic and abrasive concepts of messaging in favor of actual conversations. Not stilted conversations based on 140-character ads -- because those branded tweets are just twam -- but actual exchanges among flesh-and-blood non-automatons.

Of course, the young tweeter did invoke a never-before-uttered naughty word, so that was extraordinarily shocking and horrible and unprecedented and obviously fatal to the fortunes of the global company with a market capitalization of $55 billion. But the real obscenity here was to express a sentiment that added a sand grain of reality to the brand's lovely and inspiring but ultimately hagiographic "Imported From Detroit" ad campaign.

"The company has invested greatly, not only financially, but philosophically ... in supporting Detroit and the U.S. auto industry," Chrysler spokesman Ed Garsten told the Associated Press, "and we simply couldn't tolerate any messaging -- whether or not there was an obscenity -- that was denigrating to Detroit."

Yeah, what an apostate that Bartosiewicz is. In a city wracked with unemployment, crime, poverty, corruption, racism and intractable urban decay, discussion of driving habits is a blasphemy that takes it too far. And an ad campaign that uses rapper Eminem to personify the city's raw grit could not possibly make room for a witty molecule of road rage.

That's why, whether in Austin or Motown, "Brand Journalism" is such an awful misnomer. I find it ironic that marketers are charged with conducting conversations and no one knows how to tell the fucking truth.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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