“Fake News” Isn’t Just for Politics. It’s a Thing in the Auto Biz, Too

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This week, Automotive News and our friends at NESN Fuel reported the prevalence of “fake ads” on Facebook, which show photos of cars depicting super-cool concept cars, but when potential buyers click on the ads, they’re directed to cars for sale that look nothing like the cars depicted.

Critics claim that the photos are misleading to potential customers, and that they can actually have a detrimental impact on manufacturers. Manufacturers ” like the exposure and targeting capabilities of social media,” wrote Michael Wayland in the Automotive News story, “but zealously control how their brands and vehicles are portrayed.” A Cadillac spokesman responded, noting that the American luxury brand is “working with Facebook to identify these fake ads and have them removed.”

Running a bait ‘n’ switch photo to entice an internet shopper to look at a less sexy, run of the mill model might be annoying to the shopper, and potentially damaging to the brand, but what about the damage that speculative renderings have on brands and the products that they hope to launch in the future?

RELATED: Is This The New Bronco? No, This is Not The New Bronco

When word went around that Ford would, in fact, be producing a new Bronco, the internet exploded.

Four of the five top images in a Google search return the same photo, in different colors:

As we reported in this story entitled “NEWS FLASH: None of The Ford Bronco Images on the Internet Are Legit” all of these pictures are renderings that come from the same source: Bronco6G.com, a fan site devoted to the upcoming sixth generation Bronco.

The renderings are great, and they indicate what fans of the two-door SUV would love to see Ford produce: A modern take on the classic Bronco from 1980 to 1995.

But in that story, we laid out all the reasons why such a Bronco is impractical, and has little hope of being produced. Two-door SUVs are essentially extinct, and even when they’re offered, nobody buys them. The moment Jeep offered a four-door Wrangler, for example, those outsold two-door Wranglers by three-to-one. In the Toyota FJCruiser’s best month, it sold 1,600 units. Chevrolet sells twice as many Corvettes every month, at twice the price.

RELATED: Find a Toyota FJCruiser at BestRide.com

Fan sites are terrific, and they’re an outlet for some amazingly talented people to show some of their best ideas. No harm in that. The problem, though, is when legitimate media outlets start sharing those photos alongside headlines that suggest that they’re the real thing.

When speculation about the upcoming Bronco hit its first peak five months ago, major media outlets with household names began sharing stories alongside those fan-created images, suggesting that this is what a new Bronco would look like:

Road & Track

Car and Driver

Maxim

Facebook status updates showed the same rendering:

Other outlets took a different tack, but also played fast and loose with the facts.

Motor Trend

The image that Motor Trend used is at least a step closer to something actually exhibited by the Ford Motor Company, but it’s no closer to the truth. The silver Bronco in this story is a concept car that Ford showed at the North American International Auto Show all the way back in 2004, when Chief Creative Officer J Mays was in his most retro phase:

It’s understood that a media outlet needs to show a photo along with the story. Motor Trend‘s use isn’t all that egregious, but MSN Autos, by way of Popular Mechanics definitely is:

Showing a 13-year-old video clip with “IT’S CONFIRMED” emblazoned across the lower third strongly suggests that it’s this design is the one that’s going forward.

But as Ford began to make official announcements at the North American International Auto Show in January, it became more and more clear that the Bronco we’ll be getting is going to have little to do with either the Bronco6G.com rendering, or the 2004 concept vehicle.

The only official word from Ford was the press release that noted “Bronco will be a no-compromise midsize 4×4 utility for thrill seekers who want to venture way beyond the city,” and a new Bronco logo that looks just like the old Bronco logo:

On January 10, the Ranger subreddit posted an “Ask Me Anything” session with a Redditor that claimed to be a Ford designer, who was working on the new Ranger.

Whether or not you can take the word of a Redditor at face value is debatable. Redditors following the Boston Marathon Bombing and its aftermath, for example, got as much wrong as they did right, long before major media outlets reported anything.

That said, Reddit did verify this Redditor’s credentials. When asked about the upcoming Bronco, he responded: “It will be very similar to the current Ford Everest.”

The Ford Everest is a five-door variant of the T6 Ford Ranger that’s sold everywhere else in the world but the United States.

From the get-go, that’s two more doors than the classic Bronco, based on a smaller truck that would make a 2020 Bronco a midsize SUV.

The reaction was immediate and negative:

All of this was happening as Ford executives walked the floor at the Detroit auto show. Then something interesting happened:

Jalopnik writer David Tracy reported overhearing Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. on the floor of the show, saying that the new Bronco would be a “body-on-frame” vehicle, making it distinct from the Everest.

Autoline interviewed Ford Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair, who said that the upcoming Bronco would share a platform with the T6 Ranger, but it would be distinct from the Everest.

“This Bronco is completely unique from that Everest,” Nair said.

The fact that people at Bill Ford, Jr. and Raj Nair’s pay grade were out explaining to journalists that a Bronco — three years from production — wouldn’t just be a warmed over Everest is almost unprecedented. It indicates that the detrimental effect of fake news about a legendary Ford nameplate had reverberated around the halls in Dearborn.

I’ve covered the automotive industry for 20 years now. I’ve heard “we can’t talk about future product” at least a thousand times in that period. Suddenly, Ford was out in front of a rumor, and talking — loudly — about future product.

Jeep is facing much of the same kind of speculation as it closes in on the official introduction of the upcoming Jeep Grand Wagoneer.

Renderings showed up on Allpar:

and Autoevolution.com:

While Consumer Guide went the “Old Bronco Concept Car” route:

The vehicle shown here under the “Future Car: 2019 Jeep Grand Wagoneer” headline is actually a concept vehicle built for the annual Easter Jeep Safari, an event for which Jeep pulls out all the stops and builds three or four wildly modified vehicles for display.

Even the caption indicates “it does suggest how vintage Grand Wagoneer styling elements could be applied to an all-new model.”

Except that’s not what’s going to happen at all. The only clear information anybody has is what’s come from Jeep, which is a head-on shot of the upcoming Grand Wagoneer, showing what the grille will look like, and it’s potential scale in comparison with the Grand Cherokee. It was from a graphic shown to a group of dealers, which Car and Driver ran:

 

Perhaps the ultimate “Fake News” clickbait is the Volkswagen Microbus, but instead of media outlets matching press releases with bogus photos, this long con is perpetrated by an actual manufacturer. As Car Talk published, Volkswagen has developed an entire cottage industry devoted to building Microbus teasers that never actually get built. It’s currently on its fifth iteration and says that maybe it’ll decide to build it as soon as 2022.

That history doesn’t stop news outlets from running photos and headlines that make it seem like you’re six months from picking up a sweet Microbus at your local VW dealer, though.

Again, Maxim got in on the act:

The problem is when major media outlets start using those images to drive content to their sites. That’s what convinces enthusiasts and even less enthusiastic members of the general public that more exciting products are coming, and it builds mistrust both of manufacturers and media outlets.

There was a time when concept cars were wildly different from the vehicles that actually showed up in dealer showrooms. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly egregious. Concept cars made the show circuit to whet consumer appetite, like this Cadillac Voyage concept:

What arrived was a rounder version of the same B-Body that GM had been selling since 1977:

American manufacturers in particular started to show vehicles that were much more in line with what what would eventually arrive in the showroom, which ended up being the case with vehicles like the Ford Thunderbird and Chevrolet Camaro.

We got in touch with our contacts at Jeep to ask whether rampant speculation, fan-created renderings, and media usage of these images as click-bait had any impact on the actual designs coming out of FCA studio. Jeep declined to comment.

We did hear from a long-time contact in the industry who agreed to comment, though preferred to be anonymous. “It would be cold an untrue to suggest that the industry isn’t influenced” by fans creating renderings like those of the Bronco and the Grand Wagoneer, he told us. “But it is true that manufacturers need to work within the bounds of what’s possible. The right design is part of that equation, but you also have to consider who the target consumer is for a specific product.”

Whether the Bronco arrives with two doors or four, a removable top or not, or a solid axle front suspension is all speculation at this point. Until you see it in the flesh, it’s probably a good idea to keep that in mind when you see a vehicle you think might be too good to be true.

 

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.