This story pulls back the sheets on journalism's affair with PR; it is reprinted with permission.
A Sell-Out's Tale
by Bryant Urstadt
One day in February I got a message from a woman named Jennifer. As messages go, it was a good one. She worked for Volvo of North America, and she wanted to fly me to Phoenix for a three-day stay in a first-class hotel, all expenses paid.
She had a nice voice. Her message was short. She said, "You are preregistered for the Volvo C70 introduction in Phoenix. Can you call me back to work out the flight details?"
It would have been a cryptic message, but I had already been on one Volvo press trip, and I knew immediately that I had just been offered a cushy free vacation. All Volvo wanted, in return, was for me to mention their car in a national publication. Or, to put it bluntly, all they wanted was my journalistic integrity.
She left a toll-free number so that, I could call her to schedule my free vacation without putting a dime on my phone bill. Volvo, as always, had though, of everything. As well they should have done. Like all the major automakers, when Volvo introduces a new car, or even a model change, they fly hundreds of journalists to a carefully scouted exotic location, put them up in royal style, and wait for the glowing reviews. I just had to tell her I would go.
I called Jennifer back.
"Hi. This is Bryant Urstadt. I'm calling about the Volvo trip." "Yes. Will you be leaving from LaGuardia or Kennedy? Do you have any airline you prefer?"
I preferred any airline anywhere--I had been stuck staring out my New York tenement window for months--but I held my tongue. She was asking because most journalists use these trips to rack up frequent-flyer miles.
"Actually, I just wanted to know a little more about the trip."
"Volvo is introducing journalists to their new C70 line of convertibles. The trip is three days in Phoenix, test-driving the convertibles. If you fly out of Kennedy you can go direct."
"A convertible? That sounds nice. Can I call you back? I'm not sure I've been assigned to write about the C70."
"That's no problem, I'll keep your space open."
I spent a good part of the next day trying to figure out whether to take Volvo up on their offer. Of course I wanted to kick around Phoenix for three days in a convertible. But I had always considered myself a serious person--serious enough to quit my job and write at home, giving up a salary, health care, companionship, and a killer view of downtown Manhattan to fashion my art in solitude, or something like that. Serious writers aren't supposed to suck the corporate teat. They are not supposed to do anything but try to pinch it with a clothespin, or chafe it somehow. The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and every other "serious" publication forbids their writers to take so much as a free lunch from a corporation.
[Note: New York Times writer Keith Bradsher explains that Times reporters still go on these trips -- it's just that the Times is the one who pays. His book, High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, has a chapter on "Seducing the Press". -Ed.]
It's not hard to figure out why publications like these forbid their writers to go on press trips: How seriously would you take my opinion on the Volvo XC AII-Wheel-Drive wagon if you knew that last summer I had been flown out to Alaska, served salmon on top of a glacier reached by cable car, and given a fishing rod, shooting lessons, and an all-weather reversible jacket with detachable liner, among other things? If you were feeling principled, you might think it didn't matter what I said about that car, or about anything else.
I resolved the mailer with a nice bit of doublethink. I would go to Phoenix and write an article, but not about the wonders of the C70 convertible (although I might have to touch on that), but about how Volvo gets people to write about the wonders of the C70. I would be a spy, you see, and not just another hack fighting for his share of the corporate sow's tasty milk.
Still, I hadn't entirely convinced myself. I may have explained to colleagues that I was headed to Phoenix to expose the phenomenon of the press trip, but I was really dreaming of the sun lighting the prickly arms of the saguaros as it dipped behind the sandy mountains of the desert, and wondering if, in the heat of Arizona, the women would be wearing tank tops and cutoff jeans.
Volvo, in the person of their travel agent, Jennifer, seemed delighted to hear from me when I called the next day.
"Mr. Urstadt! I'm glad you called."
In her gracious manner, she beckoned me deeper into the warm and fluffy corporate bosom.
"Would you be going March 24 to 26, or March 31 through April2?"
"What's the difference?"
"The first wave is lifestyle reporters. The second wave will all be from the automotive papers."
The Alaska trip had been filled with automotive reporters, and I had had my fill of stories about heroically maxing-out some hot car on the test track in Stuttgart, so I chose to join the somewhat anemic-sounding "lifestyle" group.
"Lifestyle" includes all of those publications one reads to fit better into some group, to "live" better in some way. GQ would qualify, since it teaches you how to be a better man; Family Life would, too, because it teaches you how to be a better parent, and so on through Modern Bride, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, et cetera. It's a genre that produces journalists no less annoying than the automotive-geek variety--and even more reliable for Volvo's purposes. Fifteen lifestyle journalists can be dispatched to write about the same subject and generate--working alone in their own offices, spread across the continent, with only a few press releases and their own experience as a guide--fifteen nearly identical articles.
There were to be ten waves of reporters, in groups of about thirty, aimed at a huge span of markets, including South Americans, Japanese, Europeans, and, in their own wave, Brazilians. The American lifestyle writers would be about the fifth wave, after the techno-geeks, before the Japanese.
"Do you have any special requests for your hotel room?"
In my life, I have only ever made one request of a hotel room--that it be as cheap as possible. That wasn't what Jennifer was asking.
"I'd like it to be pretty big, I guess."
She laughed. "I'm sure you'll find it comfortable. Any special pillows or anything?"
"No. I think regular pillows would be fine. Soft, though."
Jennifer called up a few mornings later. She left a message asking me to call her immediately. Naturally, I did. She needed to know my jacket size. Volvo, she explained, wanted to give me a windbreaker with its logo on the breast. I had been needing a windbreaker.
A month or two later, at around 11:30 in the morning, the FedEx man arrived and handed me a package. Inside was an envelope, from "Volvo Travel Headquarters," stamped, "Important Travel Information Enclosed."
I paused to reflect on my temporary grandeur: Important travel information, delivered by courier to my door. It was just how I wanted to live.
The envelope contained a custom Volvo luggage tag, my airline tickets, and a letter from Volvo Travel Headquarters, welcoming me to "sunny Phoenix, Arizona" and explaining that the luggage tag would "expedite handling." Also included was a brochure from the Royal Palms Hotel and Casitas, which appeared to represent the highest achievement in the art of prefab elegance. Finally, there was "The 1998 Volvo C70 Convertible Lifestyle Media Program Event Agenda." This document--its wonderful title hinting at the deadly serious precision that Volvo applied to making sure journalists had "fun"--offered not one but two agendas.
There was Program A, which included a guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, a visit to a vintage airplane restorer, and lunch with survival expert J. D. Holman, and Program B, which included a drive to the red cliffs of Sedona, known by locals as the "cosmic center of the world," followed by a visit to an artist at the Mountain Trails Gallery who specialized in Native American themes. In addition to Native American- "inspired" art, Program B also threatened to expose me to one Lily Dorene Falk, whose "exquisitely crafted creations are worn by celebrities and other high-profile, fashion-conscious clients," so I chose Program A. Both programs seemed a little mange until one considered them in the larger context of Volvo's current image campaign, which aims to reach a "sensitive," educated, semiaffluent consumer. Or, as one of their many press releases put it, the "individualist."
Arriving in Phoenix's grandly named Sky Harbor International Airport, I was greeted by a driver holding up a sign with my name on it. His name was Ron, and he was the first man ever to hold up a sign for me. He had scribbled my name with a highlighter, and I could barely read it, but that did nothing to diminish the flattery of the gesture. Ron wore a white short-sleeved shirt, a black tie, and black pants. He shook my hand and we were off, trundling down the endless airport corridors. As I followed him, he began talking about Phoenix the way a tour guide might, giving me details about its founding, and the average yearly temperature and rainfall. He was one of the only Volvo-related people I would meet who didn't treat me as though I was one of the most important people on earth.
After driving me through miles of Jiffy Lubes, RileAids, and Wal-Marts, Ron delivered me unto the Royal Palms Hotel. Volvo's people had spent months choosing the right hotel, and whatever image it exuded reflected careful decisions on the part of the trip planners. The Royal Palms keeps out the public with a pink adobe wall circling the perimeter of one block in Phoenix. To enter, we passed through an iron gate that looked like it might have been stolen from the set of Citizen Kane. The crunchy gravel driveway circled around a verdant flowerbed. Sitting out by the front doors were two teal Volvo C70 convertibles and a sky-blue Volvo convertible daring from 1956.
A blond woman at the registration desk welcomed me with great warmth, gave my key to the bellhop, and explained that Volvo had taken care of the tipping.
"That's what I like to hear," I said, possibly too enthusiastically.
The bellhop was ruddy, chipper, and so happy that I suspected that Volvo must have really taken care of the tipping. He picked up my bag, asked me how my flight was and told me how I could get whatever I wanted at a number of locations.
My room was just off the pool. The bellhop placed my bag on a special bag holder at the foot of my bed. He pointed out a pile of fruit in a basket. "That's fresh," he said, "I made sure this morning. I'll bet it'll taste pretty good after hours of traveling."
With a few obsequious nods, telling me to call him if I needed anything, he actually backed out of the room, leaving me alone to admire it.
The room was marvelously appointed in the Southwestern mode, with a Navajo-style rug on the floor, an ornate hutch holding the TV and minibar, and a heavy wood desk with swirling, Spanish-style legs. The bathroom, too, was elegantly laid out, with its own desk. The toilet paper was folded into an arrow at the first square. And on one side of the sink was a stack of freshly laundered, expertly folded towels.
The desk in the main room was heaped with gifts from Volvo. Beside the bowl of fresh fruit, there was a custom boutique bag, in Volvo blue, emblazoned with a photograph of the C70 in the desert at sunset, under the motto, "Volvo C70 Convertible--Tan Safely." Inside the bag was a tube of sunblock, a tastefully preweathered beige baseball cap, and a new pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers (approximate retail price $75). Also on the desk was my jacket, a brand-new beige windbreaker with "Volvo" stitched into the breast, and a fancy folder filled with glossy press material about Volvo and the C70, including an expensive-looking magazine called Open Mind, The Volvo C70 Convertible Magazine, also available on an enclosed CD-ROM.
The hotel's Palmera Lounge, where the introductory remarks were scheduled for that evening, was less lounge than an open breezeway, and Volvo had taken advantage of its spacious opening by wheeling in a special version of the C70 convertible and surrounding it with conference chairs. Here I got my first introduction to the Volvo corporate employees. They were not hard to spot. Besides looking almost comically Swedish--straw-haired, azure-eyed, and much-reddened by the Southwestern sun--each was wearing black pants topped with a saffron short-sleeved buttondown, both embossed with the Volvo C70 logo. There were a few American employees of Volvo mixed in, also in Volvo uniforms. The Americans, I must say, looked a little shaggy compared to the Swedes.
Among the lifestyle editors and journalists there was an air of giddy hilarity. We all must have felt like we had been getting away with something, standing there on the pink adobe stairs that led to the Palmera Lounge in balmy Phoenix. We were all wearing the name tags the Volvo publicity people had left in our hotel rooms. Several of us were from New York, and we made jokes about the grim weather we had left behind. There was Penny, the managing editor of an enormous bride's magazine; Heidi and Andrea, both automobile reporters for a New York tabloid; and other authors or editors from a wide variety of lifestyle periodicals such as Bikini, Washington CEO, GQ, Good Housekeeping, and Flair, a Canadian fashion magazine.
[Altogether, there were about thirty of us. I've done my best to conceal identities by changing their names, trying to balance the importance of naming the publication with a desire to protect the other writers. Like me, they probably went into journalism for decent reasons and got battered along the way by the meagerness of their incomes.]
Ree Hartwell, Volvo's media-relations manager, was also there, and she looked happy to see me, though it was hard to gauge her true feelings, since it was her job to look happy to see me. Ree looked happy to see me because I was officially representing Family Life, a publication aimed at parents of kids from three to twelve. The magazine tries to reach readers with higher household incomes--readers that interest Volvo very much. With a circulation of half a million, a nice spread on the Volvo convertible would more than pay for my trip.
We all settled into the conference chairs ranged around the special C70. On each chair lay a sand-colored Volvo pad and a black-and-chrome mechanical pencil/pen with "Volvo" stamped on the lead-dispensing button.
With these gifts we were to record the words of José Diaz de la Vega, the chief designer of the C70's interiors and color trim. Diaz de la Vega's speech was high theater, a campy mélange of catchphrases and carefully designed slogans. He spoke in a way that reminded me of Ricardo Montalban, spreading his hands for emphasis, then bringing them back together in a kind of prayer gesture. He frequently laid these same hands on the special C70 in a loving way. (I kept hoping that he might brush its supple, fragrant upholstery with the back of his hand, and purr about its "rich Corinthian leather.")
As for Diaz de la Vega's disquisition--some drivel about the "six senses" Volvo engineers had in mind when designing the C70--I was, after a few minutes, on the verge of tuning out completely. As he mimed his slogans with expertly faked passion, I drifted off into my own thoughts behind that polite, blank face one gives when one is being delivered information one doesn't want. In the chairs around me, however, I noticed my colleagues busily scribbling--some into their new Volvo pads, most into reporter-style notebooks. It occurred to me that Diaz de la Vega's palaver might well show up in C70 reviews (it did), so I started taking notes as well. The Volvo pads, it turned out, were not just a gift, they were a push in what Volvo considered the right direction. They couldn't literally write our reviews for us, but they were willing to dictate.
Diaz de la Vega concluded his talk with a few polished remarks, which had been polished, no doubt, in costly brainstorming sessions with the "creatives." Among these gems were, "Many convertibles have the looks, but few have the brains," "This isn't the Volvo you need, it's the Volvo you want," and his final remark, which we heard and saw over and over again during our stay, "Tan safely."
After the introductory remarks, we were led out to a phalanx of buses, which took us to the Wrigley Mansion on the outskirts of Phoenix. I boarded and sat down next to Heidi, one of the writers for the New York tabloid. She was middle-aged and dressed in a T-shirt with a big black cat on it. I asked her if she went on these trips a lot. She said she did, and that courtesy of various manufacturers, she had been flown all over the United States, to Europe on the Concorde, and once to Japan. The car manufacturers, she related, were currently in a miniwar of extravagance, competing to be the most lavish and the most inviting, and lately the trips, along with the economy, had been getting better and better. It was a pretty good deal, we agreed. She asked me if I would be writing about Volvo. I said I would.
"What's your angle?"
"I think I'm going to be writing about press trips in general."
"An exposé?" she asked, sounding worried.
"Sort of, I guess."
"Don't ruin it for the rest of us," she said, without a trace of humor.
At the Wrigley Mansion, we gathered for a four-course meal in the grand dining room overlooking the ten miles of plain leading to Phoenix. There were a number of writers at my table, and a few Volvo reps. The mood, again, was of the highest joy, as though we were all lottery winners, assembled to be congratulated for our good luck and to be awarded the cash prize.
Over white wine and dessert, a goblet full of fresh berries, and to the soft tinkle of a pianist playing, "You Are So Beautiful," the conversation turned to the press trips themselves. Heidi was at my table, and at some point she mentioned that she had writer friends who, when the press people called up to invite them on a trip, asked first, "What are the gifts?" If her friends didn't like the gifts, they wouldn't go. This launched a whole round of press-trip stories. The writers had been flown all over the world. Mexico had flown them to Mexico, so that they would write good things about Mexico, and so on, through a whole raft of countries, cars, and more general products. They compared gifts and joked about how many frequent-flyer miles they had accumulated. I tried to join in--I had a plush bathrobe from Nickelodeon, and some khaki pants from when The Gap was "introducing" khakis and sent a pair to just about every editor in Manhattan--but I had more to add about my friends than myself. I knew people who had been sent to "check out" the South of France, Scotland, exclusive islands in Florida and the Caribbean. (Anyone sick enough to read the hundreds of magazines that come out each month will pick up on certain minitrends in travel articles, usually sparked by the enthusiasm of writers who have just flown there on the country's tab.) Writers I had met on the trip to Alaska had been flown to Sweden to test Saabs, given BMWs to drive in Bavaria, and so on.
My best story, though, was about an editor I had worked for in New York. She wrote travel stories and went to several ranches and ski areas--all expenses paid--with her family several times a year. She was scrupulous about kissing their asses. As her assistant, I was constantly sending out clips of her obsequious articles to the ranches she had visited--as thanks and insurance that she would be invited back. I also sent her clips to places she hadn't yet visited, in hopes of an invitation. Her office was literally filled with gifts from companies. They were piled up against every wall, in garish stacks on her desk, under her desk, blocking her door--books, tapes, CDs, software, complicated plastic toys, sports equipment, clothes, and on and on. Many of them were duplicates, for she had been in touch with so many companies for so long that she was frequently on their mailing lists twice, but I never once saw her part with one single gift, no matter how many she had or how irrelevant it was to her life. In contrast to her Scrooge-like personal habits was the witty, fun-loving voice of her articles, which no doubt sent thousands of her several hundred thousand readers flocking to the ranches, ski areas, and product lines of her corporate friends. After a while, I realized that maybe it was a story I shouldn't have been telling, and with so much disdain, to the particular table where I sat, so I decided to be quiet for a bit.
Penny from the wedding magazine was at my table, too. She had also been on Volvo's Alaska trip. A little while after my rant, I asked her how a car review would fit in a magazine aimed at newlyweds. Did they recommend cars for newlyweds? "I made it into a kind of travel thing," she said. "You know, Alaska for the honeymoon."
"Did you mention Volvo?"
She had. And she would probably be working a similar angle for this trip.
When I got back to my room, my sheets had been folded back, a plush bathrobe had been laid out on my bed, and on my pillow was a foil-wrapped mint, with "volvo" stamped into the chocolate. I didn't eat it.
The next morning, the journalists of the North American lifestyle wave of the C70 rollout ate breakfast at T. Cook's restaurant, flipping through the complimentary USA Todays. As for T. Cook's, I will let the hotel's own material describe it: "A stunning view of Camelback Mountain and a grand wood burning fireplace will take your breath away. The perfect setting for our rustic Mediterranean fare." And at night, the brochure continues, the pianist "plays your favorite 'oldies' and the bartender remembers your 'usual' in an atmosphere that evokes warm memories of recent years past."
I sat with a couple of the younger writers, including Ben, who worked for Rolling Stone Online, which strictly bars their employers from hopping press trips. Ben had taken the trip for another magazine. Writing for a publication that forbids trips, and going under the name of another, seemed quite common.
He was a friendly guy, a hip recently arrived New Yorker. He wore a black T-shirt, jeans, and fat black shoes with lug soles. He had his hair cut short in a spiky do. The trip was cool, he said, but he was just using it to get to L.A. so he could visit his girlfriend. He had somehow convinced Volvo to fly him through L.A., with Phoenix as a stopover. Not that Volvo had needed much convincing. As far as I could tell, they would bend in just about any direction if the possibility of coverage as at stake.
Afterward, we assembled at the Palmera Meeting Room, just off the Palmera Lounge. there we were given spiral-bound "Road Books" with "Volvo Phoenix 1998" on the cover. Inside were detailed directions to Taliesin West, the Carefree Airpark Estate, Banlett Lake, and back to the Royal Palms, accompanied by a foldout road map and important telephone numbers.
Out front were fifteen brand-new convertibles in shimmering metallic gold, each with about ten miles on the odometer and the keys in the ignition. The writers stood around while Volvo's audio test engineer, Andreas Gustafson, showed us journalists how to work both the three-CD magazines and the larger, six-CD changer in the trunk. Andreas and his team had gone so far as to compile special CD mixes of driving music, with uptempo tunes such as Abba's "Dancing Queen" and the single from Madonna's "Ray of Light."
Of course, it was important to choose someone cool to drive with, so I matched up with Ben, because at breakfast he had been brandishing a case of CDs. Thus briefed, Ben and I pulled out of the Royal Palms and headed south to Taliesin West, onetime headquarters of Frank Lloyd Wright. I drove. I suppose I had some seniority, since I had been on the press trip to Alaska and he had not. This was his first trip. Ben sat in the passenger seat with Volvo's careful directions open on his lap.
We pulled out into the Phoenix traffic.
"Hey," I said. "Could you pass me my Wayfarers?"
"You're going to wear those things?" he said.
"I know, they're stupid, but it's too sunny out. My eyes are sensitive."
He handed me the Wayfarers, stubbornly squinted for about two blocks, and then put his pair on too. Suddenly we were two young guys in a brand-new $45,000 metallic-gold convertible, both wearing Wayfarers.
People stared at us at the stoplights and on the freeways. One guy yelled out the window of his BMW to tell us that we had some cool wheels. We both gave him a big, friendly thumbs-up. As cars pulled alongside and their drivers examined us, I felt like I was riding a thin line between having everyone want to know me and getting the shit beaten out of me by four teenagers in a chopped musclecar.
But it was impossible to be too cynical about the car. We were both delighted to be, for once, the ones on the other side, the ones in the fast car, the car that got the looks.
The C70 drove nicely, although it was, in its essentials, identical to most every other car ever made, in that it was able to stop and start and turn on demand. At one stoplight, I gunned it.
"Good pickup on this baby," I said.
"Yeah, and the stereo kicks butt," said Ben.
Once I pressed the brakes really hard and screeched to a stop.
"Stops nice," I said.
"Yeah, seems good," said Ben.
Neither of us had any idea what we were talking about, in terms of automobiles, and we admitted to one another that we had no intention of writing about the car, and that we were both simply taking advantage of a free trip.
After a private tour of Taliesin, we were served a box lunch with bubbly water, as we sat in a private courtyard under umbrellas. Afterward, Ben drove and I gave him the directions in our road book, which took us to the Carefree Airpark, a paved strip of desert on the outskirts of town. When we arrived, a World War II P-51 Mustang roared off the runway and tipped its wings at us. We gave him a honk.
I thought for a moment of what I would be doing if, as a journalist, I had done the "right" thing and stayed in New York. I saw myself at my little desk, hunched over my computer, occasionally glancing up at the fire escapes out my window. Before long, the other Volvo-testers started to show up in their C70s and we gathered by an airplane hangar, where a salty old guy showed us his 1943 Stearman biplane and let us sit in the cockpit.
Then we drove up into the mountains, dutifully following Volvo's entertainment schedule, and met another character hired by Volvo, a fellow by the name of J. D. Holman. He was dressed in period costume dating from about 1880---down to antique pocket watch, handlebar mustache, and ivory-handled pistol--and he gave us a well-rehearsed lecture on the dangers of the desert.
At every event, we were joined by several of Volvo's people, who answered our simple questions- "How many cylinders does it have," --with grace and enthusiasm. They, too, were tooling around in brand-new C70s and seemed to be having as much fun as we were. Again, they all wore uniforms; they seemed to have had a different one made for each segment of the event. This time, the outfit included black C70-embossed hiking shoes and a T-shirt with a picture of a pair of Wayfarers hanging off the end of the words, "Cruise Brothers."
I asked Andreas, the audio guy, about the T-shirt.
"It's just for fun. Our guys, they like uniforms. They get an idea, they just do it."
In the afternoon, having finally escaped the preplanned activities of Program A, Ben and I took off into the mountains surrounding Phoenix. We happened on a state park and climbed to the top of a hill. There was an abandoned Native American settlement there, six or seven hundred years old. Far below, we could see our C70, looking absurdly luxurious alone in the small parking lot. Mountains and hills stretched out in every direction, reaching up to drifting clouds. The warm feelings for Volvo were overwhelming. Volvo had given us all of this.
That night was the big dinner, at the Royal Palms, in the Estrella Salon by the reflecting pool. Most overnight press trips have their big dinner, where the journalists mix with the corporate officers. In Alaska, we had taken a cable car to the top of a glacial mountain, and there, in a lodge with immense windows overlooking miles of mountains, Seward Bay, and hang gliders suspended against the ten o'clock sunset, we had toasted the Volvo corporate personnel, who had risen to ovations from the journalists and made short, witty speeches about how happy they were to have us there, and how important we were to them.
At the predinner cocktail hour in Phoenix, caterers in black bowties brought around margaritas on trays, and bartenders served up the best of the top shelf. Some of the journalists arrived in jacket and tie. Clearly, they saw this occasion as a real event. While we picked hors d'oeuvres off a long oak table, I tried to do some research, to crack open something big, and to that end, I cornered Jim Borsh, Volvo's director of corporate communications.
A tall, serious man, Borsh had been on the Taliesin tour with me and had not cracked a smile or told one joke, which was unusual for someone in public relations. As we sipped margaritas and smacked the salt off our lips, he surprised me by saying that Volvo didn't expect to sell many C70s. The car was just part of a vast campaign to change Volvo's image. With its "sensual lines" and "supple skin," as the press release called them, the C70 would sexify the stodgy automaker, making people feel better about buying Volvo sedans and station wagons. The success of the campaign, it was natural to infer, would depend on the articles we journalists would write.
The next day, I packed up my sunglasses, lotion, windbreaker, pen, pad, and preweathered baseball hat and went home. I didn't really want to leave, but I had to. I bumped into Ree Hartwell on the front stoop of the hotel. As I mentioned, she was Volvo's media-relations manager, and in that capacity she was responsible not only for my happiness but also for choosing which journalists to invite on the press trips. As cynical as I was about the quid pro quo implicit in these junkets, I couldn't bring myself to announce it, openly, so when she asked me if I had written anything about the Volvos I drove in Alaska, I equivocated.
"I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with that," I said, sheepishly. Actually, I had never intended to write about it at all. I had told her that when she had invited me, but I still felt a twinge of guilt. Even though it was acknowledged by all parties that there was no pressure, we have all been trained from birth that if someone does something nice for you, you owe them one. "I think I might do something about this trip, though," I added, with more enthusiasm. And then, with the other writers, I stepped into the minivan that took us to the airport. I knew the trip was over when, waiting for my plane, I had to buy my own can of soda.
Based on an examination of some of the articles produced by the writers collaborating in Volvo's marketing plan, I've concluded that the amount it cost to send each journalist to Phoenix and back, in first-class accommodations, was more than paid for by the coverage Volvo received, especially when one considers that a fullpage ad in a major magazine can cost up to and sometimes more than $10,000. Volvo, along with other car manufacturers, has clearly concluded the same thing.
Not long after the trip to Alaska, for instance, I came across an article in Bikini. The author, in a story touted on the cover, raved about the XC wagon, and his article ran alongside a full-page photograph of him standing in front of the car. You can't buy coverage like that, Volvo knows, but you can barter for it. It reaches exactly the kind of audience Volvo is trying for: younger, "hipper," more style-conscious buyers who might otherwise dismiss the Swedish carmaker as too square.
Another writer, in The Detroit News, not only regurgitated the press release's claim that the XC "looks as good at the Ski Haus as it does at the Opera House" but also supplemented it with his own riff, adding that "the wagon did indeed blend in equally well at the Grouse Ridge Shooting Grounds, the banks of the Little Susitna River and the classy Alyeska Prince Hotel."
The Arizona trip bore fruit as well. A search on the Dow Jones network for mentions of "C70 convertible" turned up 440 articles. It would be impossible and, I fear, fatally tedious, to read every one. The hundred or so pages I managed to get through were scarily similar. Clearly, Volvo had gotten its money's worth. I recognized the names of many of the writers. Some mentioned that they had been flown out to Phoenix or Alaska, and some wrote the review without mentioning their trip. Some simply lapped up what Volvo fed them, quoting directly from Diaz de la Vega and the slobbering press material.
New Car Test Drive, a publication available both on and off the Web, pretty much grabbed the first line of Volvo's press release to use as a headline, taking "The winds of change are blowing throughout Volvo" and changing it to "The winds of change are blowing here."
More subtle was the adoption of Volvo-fed words, such as "swoop," which Volvo used in its press release and which at least two writers coopted for their own description of the car. One syndicated author actually sank so low as to use the Volvo catch line, "Tan Safely," as his first sentence. His piece appeared in The Automotive News and, through syndication, in such papers as The Toronto Sun.
Others busted out a little ersatz erudition, pointing out that the C70 was not Volvo's first attempt at an open car, and mentioning the 1956 P1900, which, of course, had been helpfully parked outside our hotel. GQ's writer, for one, penned a worshipful half-page about the C70, pretty much scooping up the press material and ladling it into his story, talking about the P1900 and adding some filigree about how much he'd like to have had Ursula Andress in the car with him. The excitement the article no doubt generated among GQ's half-million or so affluent readers might well have paid for the whole American lifestyle wave.
Honorable mention for the most obsequious coverage goes to the Autoweek writer, who added a nice bit of characterization to Diaz de la Vega's speech, writing, "But what about taste? Diaz de la Vega gets a devilish glint in his eyes: 'A taste of the good life,' he says."
The highest honor in this category, however, must go to the online magazine Woman Motorist, whose author took Diaz de la Vega's speech in the Palmera Lounge as the outline for her entire review and ended her piece with the treacly, "Thanks, Volvo, for sensing everything today's driver needs..."
This article originally appeared in The Baffler 12, 1999. It was reprinted in Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy (Salvos from the Baffler), which was then [scanned and OCRed], and put online at http://zpedia.org/A_Sell-Out's_Tale.
The specu-bubble popped two years after I wrote this piece, and I assumed that lavish press junkets would be one of the first items to be trimmed from the corporate budget. At some point during the darkest days of the downturn, however, I got an e-mail from a colleague, complete with a digital photo of an alpine lake backed by snow-capped mountains. He was in British Columbia, testing station wagons on Volvo's dime, trying to figure out which gifts to keep and which to toss. Meanwhile, I continue to be offered safaris and free vacations in Gstaad. The business of buying supposedly honest opinions seems to be recession-proof.
[Bryant Urstadt is a writer living in Guilford, Connecticut. He has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Boston Globe, Details, and Outside.]
[Further reading: A chapter of High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way by Keith Bradsher is entitled "Seducing the Press" and discusses these sorts of events. Bradsher, a writer for the New York Times, says that Times reporters do go on them, it's just that the paper pays.]