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76 airbags and 11 885 words…

So what do you think about Top Gear — the BBC’s motoring show featuring the irrepressible Jeremy Clarkson and his two much-abused sidekicks? The programme is irreverent and boorish, it’s offensive, it’s insensitive to the feelings of minorities and, ultimately, it has little to do with mainstream motoring journalism because Clarkson and company never let reality get in the way of a good story. In short, it’s entertainment. I love it, and it’s the only motoring programme I ever watch. Most of the others, and their print counterparts, are stodgy, humourless boring rubbish largely lifted straight out of press packs.

I suppose much of this sorry state of affairs is due to the expectations of you, dear reader. When you turn to the test of the latest Morris Minor you’re not going to be impressed by a 17-word review that says “It’s OK — it’s marginally faster, much tinnier and costs twenty grand more than the outgoing model did”. You want to hear about the 76 airbags, and how pleasing the tester found the styling, even if you secretly think it’s horrible. That way you can justify buying it. The ever-helpful motor industry, of course, paves the way for the hard-toiling journo by issuing long-winded press releases detailing how the new car is 60% more rigid than the last one, that was in turn 65% more rigid than its predecessor. So what were the earlier versions made of? Liquorish?

Five years ago I spent two days at a launch driving a pretty ordinary 1.4-litre car that was reasonably inoffensive and quite pretty, but no better than it should have been. After I dragged myself home from the airport late that night I opened the press release to prepare my report, and was confronted with no less that 11 885 words of drivel — 36 pages of it. This I was supposed to absorb and regurgitate using no more than 800 words, including my opinions. Here’s a short sample of what I faced — I kid you not!

“The communications policy planned for this original model addresses a young, dynamic public using a fresh, immediate language. One result is the ‘Mr. Dot’ logo, a cheerful P-shaped pictogram which changes appearance according to the situation: from a driver to a little man on skis. There are 50 possible transformations, each with a different personality, the expression of the concept of “moving passion” that lies behind the —– —– project: if on one hand the new model represents the passion shown by —- and its employees for cars, speed and racing, on the other, it is also the spirit of a customer who is attracted by the values of beauty, dynamism, colour, passion and movement.”

That, my friends, is exactly 115 words — less than 1% of the press release — and after that it got worse. This was the all-time Lulu of press releases.

Sometimes the stress gets a little too much, and sitting at my keyboard that night I rebelled. After filling my readers in on the background of what had raised my ire, I spent a huge chunk of my allotted 800 words evaluating the press release rather than the car. I started by quoting every 15th word of the corporate drivel and found to my bemusement that, although garbage, the opening was far more interesting than the original. “New best life fire passion … ”

Unabashed, I continued:

“The entire Sermon on the Mount, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech added together come to just 4 261 words — I know, because I’ve just downloaded ‘em and done a word-count — and each of these documents carried rather more gravitas than the announcement of yet another new 1.4-litre hatchback. Anyway, I figured that the simplest way to cut 11 885 words back to 800 was to start at the top and use every 15th word, so that’s what I did with my opening paragraph. It worked better than I expected but not as well as I’d hoped, so I’ll use my remaining 440 words to tell you, in English, about the car.”

And then I told them that car was indeed a nice ‘un and reasonable value for the money.

One of the greatest press reviews of all time was written by Walter Kerr about a 1955 film called I am a Camera starring Laurence Harvey and Julie Harris. His review consisted of just three words. “Me no Leica.”

I reckon Kerr could have got a job in the Top Gear studio.

Author

  • Gavin Foster

    Durban photojournalist Gavin Foster writes mainly for magazines. His articles and photographs have appeared in hundreds of South African, American and British publications, and he's also instigated and researched stories for Carte Blanche. Winner of the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa PICA Profile Writer of the Year Award in 2008. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2015/16/17. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Overall) 2015/16. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorsport Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2017 - Runner-Up 2015/16.