Motor trade – as bad as the media say it is?

Posted on August 14th, 2013 by Rob Marshall

dealershipThe announcement that Channel 4 has commissioned a documentary series, filmed within a used car dealer’s premises in Essex, has excited me. At last, a major broadcaster has the opportunity to smash through decades of negative media coverage and prove that the motor trade can be professional, credible and trustworthy.

Unfortunately, the promotional snippet (let alone the episodes that aired in early August) failed to reassure me that the series would present the profession in anything other than an undesirable light. Starting with the mockney-accented narrator, down to the choice of footage chosen, ‘The Dealership’ appears to follow Swiss Tony stereotypes that have been reinforced by the media for decades.

As I am GEM’s technical advisor, the majority of members that use the free service are concerned that they are about to be ‘ripped off’ by either a trader, or a repairer, before they have even approached the business. Such preconceptions do not appear suddenly overnight and I believe that the almost consistent bad vibes that emanate from television shows, in particular, play a big part.

Whether they like it or not, car salesmen inherited the repute of horse traders, a vocation that was hardly renowned for its honesty. An 1883 edition of the New York Times even reported that, “If the lying (sic) were stopped by law, the business of horse trading would come to an end”. Yet, it appears that television has continued to promote the used car sales (and repair) industry in a very poor light and the public remains wary, even though the motor sales and repair trade has strived to clean-up its act.

Perhaps one reason is the almost continuous bad publicity, generated by the media in the last sixty years but, perhaps, there is a grain of truth. After all, Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch was intended originally to be based on a car owner complaining that his vehicle fell to pieces, shortly after buying it, (remarkable car the Ford Anglia, beautiful paintwork but the bodywork is pining for the fjordsetc) but the writers felt that a car complaint was too obvious. Perhaps we should all be grateful! Even so, an earlier sketch that inspired it was based upon an actual experience that Michael Palin endured, when he returned a pre-owned car to its vendor.

However, respected comedians continued to berate the motor trade and its employees, from Marty Feldman’s sketch that featured an incompetent mechanic that, eventually, drove his customer mad, through to Harry Enfield’s Lee and Lance, all of which reinforced the stereotype that used car traders and repairers are dirty, inept, ill-educated, lazy, foul mouthed and untrustworthy.

GARAGES IN SOAPLAND

Soap operas play an even more vital role, in typecasting the motor industry, virtually everyday on primetime viewing slots. While the characters of Frank Butcher (and later, Max Branning) would tempt anyone with an ounce of sense not to buy a ‘mo-arr’ from their squalid used car lot in Eastenders, the repair trade is given an even firmer kicking, courtesy of The Arches or Mitchell’s Autos. It seems as though the BBC is obsessed to portray garages as being messy, dirty and unsafe, with its workers being either criminals, or being unskilled and unintelligent. Those characteristics were cut-and-pasted onto the establishment of the BBC3 sitcom, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

While the Phil Mitchell character is hardly whiter-than-white, the teen soap Hollyoaks does little to improve the motor trade’s image to a new generation. That programme’s garage owners are three brothers that more than dabble in criminality. In Northern England, Emmerdale’s garage has handled stolen vehicles and is linked closely with that soap opera’s ‘bad boy’; no wonder the motor trade continues to be regarded with such suspicion.

Coronation Street does, at least, give a degree of respite, in that its Kevin and Tyrone characters appear to be more professional and qualified but even their exploits in soap-land are hardly squeaky-clean.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

Has the treatment of actuality had too much creative gloss attached to it by a lazy media, or are all the negative portrayals rooted firmly in truth?

It can be argued that television’s commissioning editors are scared of losing their jobs and tend not to be especially original, when contracting production companies. From what I can see, ‘The Dealership’ is simply an uninventive hybrid of TOWIE and The Call Centre.

The motor trade has improved in the last thirty years. The increased need for advanced diagnostic equipment and skills to use them have seen many of the worst businesses come to the end of the road. Even so, the motor industry, especially the used sales and repair aspects, need further support. In my view, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) is too occupied in supporting car manufacturers and new car dealerships and, while various accreditation and non-enforceable industry standards have been introduced, it has not influenced public perceptions, possibly by not being promoted effectively.

I worry that continued negative media exposure, including the aura of unprofessionalism captured in Channel 4’s latest servings, will erode the hard work of good independent garages and car sales businesses and do the wider motor industry a further disservice in the eyes of the nation.

What is your view though? Is the media clinging onto an outmoded and unjustified stereotype, or is it reflecting accurately an industry that really needs to sort itself out?