For over thirty years our criticisms of the auto industry’s aversion to engineering known safety systems in their vehicles was coupled with positive recommendations for simple corrections that would save lives and dollars.
From time to time, a reporter or editor would ask why we do not praise the auto companies when they do good? Well, even if it is their duty to do good, we have given a tip of the hat when one company forges ahead of the rest in matters of safety or emission control or fuel efficiency.
But nine years ago we decided to recognize an auto company “first” in a more dramatic way. Ten celebrities agreed to buy a car from the first manufacturer to sell 200,000 vehicles with standard full front seat airbags in a model line. These volunteer, celebrity buyers are Paul Newman, Abigail Van Buren, Burt Reynolds, Bill Murray, Dustin Hoffman, Phil Donahue, Dan Akyroyd, Steve Allen, Edward Asner and Peter Falk.
On March 3, 1995, we announced the winner — the Chrysler Corporation which crossed the finish line with its L/H model line in calendar 1993 and its minivan model line by April 1, 1994 for the 1994 model year. Ford’s 1994 Taurus/Sable model line came in second.
A well-advanced news conference occurred on March 3, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. with the President of Chrysler, Robert Lutz, myself and Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety. For the first time, these three persons stood together in front of the press corps to announce good news. Trouble is, very few reporters showed up; no television and no radio. Why?
It is too easy to attribute their absence to some breaking news in the interminable O.J. Simpson case that is crowding out so many public events.
We discovered two reasons for the minimal coverage. One was that the Detroit News partially broke the story two days before in a page one story. This nixed the event for the New York Times, according to their reporter, even though there is very little overlap between the Times readership and that of the Detroit News. This is a frequent excuse given by even widely separated newspapers that astonishes non-press people.
The second explanation came from the Business Editor of the Washington Post. He said that the purpose of the news conference was too transparently a promotion. He noted that they receive such promotions daily and disregard them.
I explained that this event was an anti-commercial initiative. Instead of paid celebrities touting products on tv and in the press that they rarely use, here are unpaid celebrities offering to buy a product with their money from the first company that reaches a certain safety standard and volume sales.
This “reverse” celebrity pledge, I thought, was a new stimulus to company innovation in the areas that really count -health and safety. This innovation can be used for many companies to stimulate them to better levels of consumer, workplace and environmental performance. After all, it is not often that a company can sell its products in a publicized manner to such well-known people who have laid down a condition that must be met before they buy.
The editor seemed to acknowledge there was a difference but still did not concede the point.
Of course fulfilling a reverse celebrity pledge can be unfairly exploited by the winning company if it does not show self-restraint.
The afore-mentioned celebrities are not saying they think the Chrysler L/H model or the minivan model are the safest cars. Indeed, the mini-van is in a serious controversy over its weaker door latch that has led to the ejection of occupants in a crash. Consumer groups and parents of victims are demanding a recall of four million minivans and the government is investigating crashes involving 25 fatalities.
The contest was specific — to recognize the company that was first in selling a certain number of vehicles in a year’s model line with standard full front air bags. Chrysler earned the win with this engineering achievement. It can show greater defense of its engineering reputation by recalling and fixing the minivan’s rear door latches.