The two private Learjets landed at Key West International Airport. Inside, the passengers ten journalists and three PR execs, packed tightly together burst into applause, which soon gave way to oohs and aahs. Through the jet windows we could see a line of Volkswagen Eos hard-top convertible coupes, with their 3.2-liter, six-cylinder turbo-charged engines, glistening on the tarmac. "Drive us," they seemed to say.
It had been a very good flight. In the 25 minutes it took to fly from Opa-locka Executive Airport, the group had been been plied with bottled water, coffee and orange juice, a breakfast frittata, a fruit bowl, a croissant, coffee cake, and a Danish. The food was greatly admired, politely picked at, and then cheerfully dumped into a large cardboard box, to be quietly disposed of. The captain of the tiny jet made jokes along the way: Passengers would soon be free to walk about the cabin; contents may have shifted during flight. Plane stuff. Everyone laughed we were private jet people.
Descending onto the tarmac, the reporters paired off and picked cars, each team receiving a key and brief instructions on rolling back the hard-top retractable roof (it involved holding a button down). The convertibles were also equipped with navigation systems, preprogrammed to point out, in a soft-but-sensible feminine voice, every turn, distance, and stop along the way to Key Largo. Our burden: to turn the key, and drive.
The jets, the cars, the yacht waiting at Key Largo to take us back to South Beach all were part of a media junket to promote Volkswagen's new luxury car. Two years ago, after VW's U.S. sales had dropped for four consecutive years, the German car maker ditched its advertising agency of ten years, Arnold Worldwide, and attempted to revamp its marketing strategy.
Now VW is desperate to win over a new, younger demographic. In print and on television its advertisements have been edgy. One ad, designed by Miami agency Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, showed a man ready to jump to his death because he thought incorrectly, the ad emphasized that he couldn't afford a VW. Another ad featured a horrific car crash, emphasizing the Jetta's safety features. Despite criticism of both ads, something seems to be working: VW sales began to climb again in 2006 and 2007.
Last June Volkswagen hired the public relations firm MWW Group to push its new "lifestyle" media campaign. Reasoning that most people don't know anything about cars anyway, the idea is to promote the idealized life the car invokes, rather than bother with the car itself. To that end, MWW invited ten journalists from ten publications to a two-night, $200,000-plus promotional orgy (roughly $20,000 per person, if you care to look at it that way). Among the media invited apparently because someone else dropped out at the last minute was New Times. Out of a cold, scientific curiosity to see such a specimen of publicity machinery at work, New Times dutifully accepted.
Not one of the journalists invited was an automotive writer or car specialist; they were writers for major "lifestyle" magazines like Country Living, Self, and Gotham magazine. Before they so much as touched the Eos, invitees were treated to $180 spa treatments, dinner a la carte, an open bar, and $1300-a-night penthouse suites at the Regent South Beach hotel, complete with open-air hot tubs that faced Ocean Drive. Eos pamphlets were left unobtrusviely on the nightstand. In fact hardly anyone, including Eos reps, even mentioned the car. There was not a single slide show, not one presentation on the Eos. Instead, there was free stuff shitloads of it with a joy ride in the $40,000 convertible tucked casually in the middle.
"We're looking to expose our car to a different demographic," explained MWW's Kristin Lambert, who works at Volkswagen's offices in Michigan. Lambert was happy to explain how she hoped to win the hearts and minds of America via a small, scandalously pampered clot of reporters.
"Take Self [magazine]. Well, their target demographic matches ours but they don't write about cars. So we go, öHow can we get EOS into their publication?'" Lambert then answered her own question: "Eos lifestyle," she explained. "We're hoping [to] spark some story ideas that relate to something on the trip."
My driving partner, John Guilfoil, the young editor of the online magazine Blast, broke it all down some 40 delirious miles out of Key West. Ads are expensive, he pointed out, but articles and the reporters who write them are cheap.
A two-page color advertisement in Self, for example, normally runs at about $140,000; a similar spread in Country Living can run anywhere from $130,000 to $300,000. (New Times charges $1800.)
"So they take us jaded journalists," Guilfoil said, "and say, öHere: Have a hotel, have a nice dinner, have some wine, have some chocolates, have a massage, have a car here are the keys.' That's why when we arrived, they immediately offered us a massage as 'part of the Eos lifestyle.' Eos is this mythological thing, you know? It's the good life."
Junkets like this one, says Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, are an ethical no-no. Newspapers and magazines, including New Times, should pay for such excursions, she insists, even if it is to show how a sales pitch works. "If you accept, you are part of the problem," she says. "For these people, any publicity is good publicity."
The magazine writers demurred when asked if they would be writing articles on the Eos following the trip, saying, rather huffily, that they never made such promises. But Guilfoil raised his eyebrows. "They can say that," he laughed, "but you go on something like this ... I think there's a certain understanding."
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When we reached Key Largo, there was the Eos crew beckoning, like sirens, toward the 80-foot private yacht waiting to take us back to South Beach. The boat had but one rule: no shoes. Whatever thin veneer of professionalism remained among the guests came off with our shoes and dissipated forever in the sunlight and frothing, foaming water of the yacht ride. Barefoot and sun-sleepy, journalists lounged on cushions outside the cabin, facing the water. We ate crab. We drank wine.
"These things exist everywhere," murmured a writer named Jeff, as he lounged on the deck, "if you can make the right connections." Sunburned, snapping pictures, and sipping wine, Jeff looked out at the ocean. "The trick for you and me," he said dreamily, "is to make this afternoon and tonight last forever."
As the yacht pulled in, an MWW exec invited all to attend a spa treatment, dinner and cocktails, and an outing to Mokai "a very exclusive club," they assured us where bottle service starts at $300. Light-headed from the wine, exhausted from the sun, stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, I walked onto the dock and was instantly greeted by an MWW flack, who handed me a Dove chocolate ice cream cone.
I took it. I couldn't say no.