Ford and Honda pulling out of SEMA is a reminder that the auto show is on death’s door. SEMA is an awesome showcase. Still, the large automakers likely realize that the investment to be there gets drowned out by everyone else’s spending — just like traditional car shows. It’s not that the car companies are doing anything different, but the system once worked differently.
The auto shows used to make sense in the days of buff books and the best auto news happening in print. We’d gather everybody together every few months and showcase enough content to last for a few issues. But the last years of the big auto shows really showed just how upside-down everything was getting. The digital age meant the largest outlets kept most of their team in the media center and off the show floor. It was so that all premieres had text and photos uploaded immediately. Thus, the only difference between being at the auto show and being at home was the echo from the stage.
This kind of irrelevance has been especially noticed by car companies. Where a big premiere once meant getting premium print space, the modern auto show became a moot battle. No matter if you spent $10 on PowerPoint presentation or $10 million on a concept car, your company was still getting bumped further down the news feed every 20 minutes because the next debut was happening.
So it makes sense Ford and Honda would pull out of SEMA. It’s a media-only show, and so the ground is coverage-saturated. If there’s a new Bronco accessory or a cool version of the upcoming Acura Integra, they are better to debut it on their own time outside of the November show. All the blogs and social media are perpetually hungry for content, so they can own a slow news day/week in December for a fraction of the price they would have paid to be at SEMA.
It’s just my hope that the industry recognizes the valuable part of the auto show, and the right people actually start to nurture it. We are a community. There’s irreplaceable value in having everyone together at once. The best auto executives and journalists are true enthusiasts. We feed off of each other’s questions, and the engineers and representatives get real and engaging feedback.
So, let’s take advantage of the one tool that seems to still work: the embargo. It works for digital premieres, and it’s also a long-standing part of press preview drives.
Let’s bring back the old auto show ways but with a bit of a twist. The Media Day(s) is now a week before the show opens to the public. It all still happens just as quickly as before with a whirlwind of debuts within 24-48 hours. But the whole experience is embargoed. For the next week up until the show’s public opening, the journalists will release the info from two manufacturers per day. It will give each automaker more coverage space, and it can make the writing more thoughtful because there was time to digest the debuts, conversations, and seat time.
I would like for the auto shows to come back, and an embargo with the hundreds of media members is ambitious (and unrealistic for the thousands at SEMA.) But the press has to do its part to revive a once-essential part of our industry.