Motorcycle journalism is a pretty distant cousin to journalism journalism, but when I got here a few years ago, whether we always stayed on the right side of it or not, everybody was very aware of The Wall that’s supposed to exist between Editorial (the people who write the magazine/web content) and Advertising (the people who go out and twist the arms of advertisers to make money). The reason for that wall should be obvious; a big bank shouldn’t be able to buy its way out of a scandal by buying a big bloc of advertising in a newspaper. A motorcycle shouldn’t win the Big Shootout because its manufacturer spent the most ad dollars. Sure the advertising people might buy an editor lunch now and then, sometimes even with an advertiser at the table, but attempting to influence editorial for profit was, and remains, strictly forbidden at any respectable publication. It’s common sense, really, but the older I get, the less common sense seems to be.

I’ve only met a couple of MO’s advertising people (there might only be a couple); they work out of a building somewhere in L.A., and I’m told our “marketing department” is a few people in Ontario for all of VerticalScope. I know our biggest competitor, the 800-pound gorilla that owns about ten print bike magazines and a slew of competing websites, has a building full of Marketing and Sales people right next to another building that contains all their Editorial people, and the reason I bring all this up is because I’m jealous I no longer get to go on their week-long dirtbike riding expedition up around Yosemite anymore, the one all the advertisers are invited on every fall along with the advertising and editorial staffs.

It’s only good business, really, since establishing personal relationships via dirtbiking all day and an open bar at night is probably the best possible way to generate ad revenue. (To be fair, it also spawned some great magazine stories.) No doubt I’m spoiled, because it was usually just another great motorcycle ride for me. But then I learned that many of the advertisers curry favor for years to get invited on that junket: For people stuck in an office most of the time, it’s a big deal. A marketing person who used to arrange the logistics told me the bar tab would pay my salary for a year; the sad thing is the company probably did get more return on their investment from the booze than they ever did from me. On the other side of the coin, if I take a person to dinner for MO business, like an interview or something, MO will pay for dinner but the cocktails will come out of our own pockets. I admire the purity of that policy, but not the downscale imbibing that results from it.

111815-whatever-sales-marketing-justiceWe at MO of course are not without taint by real journalism standards, since we do accept press junkets from manufacturers and borrow their great new bikes for weeks – but we like to think it’s okay since we strive to sponge off all of them equally.

What got me thinking about all this was news the other day that a big manufacturer whose sales are slumping announced it would take strong countermeasures by doubling down on marketing and cutting costs, ahhh, elsewhere.

Sell the sizzle, not the steak, they say in advertising – along with quite a bit of other senseless baloney that may have sounded reasonable in 1954. At some point, there needs to be a little protein or we starve. I have to admit most of my favorite people in this business are on the advertising/marketing side of the Wall, since they tend to be the cool kids from school who kept the rest of us giggling, the gregarious extrovert types – the best of whom are genuinely nice, caring people in addition to being great salesmen.

A lot of the better writers and editors in the biz come from the other end of the personality spectrum – moody, contemplative introverts who relate to machines better than they do to people. Not all, but many. Take Peter Egan as an exception who proves the rule, please… It’s a sad fact that our best writers and artists tend to be troubled humans with behavioral issues. When you start blending Advertising with Editorial, though, you run out of room for those off-beat characters. Soon after, your “Editorial” begins to read like “Press Release.” The danger of having great PR people is you begin to believe them: We’re the biggest and best! Aren’t we?

Ever read any Ring Lardner? Google up “Alibi Ike” (100 years old this year).

Ever read any Ring Lardner? Google up “Alibi Ike” (100 years old this year).

Where’m I going anyway? Where am I? In the end, you can spend your money on PR, you can use your budget to hire plenty of great marketing people to entertain the advertisers. Or you can be successful the old-fashioned way, by cultivating great (weird) creative people, putting out original entertaining content everybody wants to read, and generating big circulation numbers (or however we clock it on the www) even happy-tipsy advertisers can’t ignore.

Manufacturers face the same choice. They can spend the gross national product on advertising and marketing, or they can spend a bigger chunk hiring brilliant designers and engineers to build a range of motorcycles with something for everybody. Every time I visit Piaggio’s fleet center, I’m surprised all over again when I step through the door and am greeted by the candy store array of Aprilia RSV4s and Shivers, Vespas, Moto Guzzi sporty bikes, Caponords, and heavy cruisers far as the eye can see. Piaggio is the rare example of a company that needs to spend more on marketing. Actually, it just needs more dealers. We motojournalists are pretty much Piaggio’s marketing department. Wait, is that why they don’t sell many bikes?

Piaggio’s Erik Larson rearranges the waiting room at the Costa Mesa fleet center.

Piaggio’s Erik Larson rearranges the waiting room at the Costa Mesa fleet center.

Anyway, the right balance of steak and sizzle, as usual, is some happy place in the middle. You know I hate to go political, but it sort of starts at the top. Is the Wall still in place? Is it as endangered as the one between church and state? Did I dream the whole thing? Now that Citizens United is the law of the land, which allows unlimited campaign contributions to your favorite politicians and therefore nothing but sizzle 24/7, I’m going to be forced to just ignore all political advertising for the duration. MO’s Editorial Director would commit homicide or resign before he would allow any compromise in whatever editorial ethics MO possesses (he made me say that). As for me when it comes to politics, this time I’m holding out for a nice bottle of Maker’s Mark before I throw my support behind anybody.