Open Mic

How the Media Blew It in Reporting Toyota's Sales Numbers for February and the Great Brand Story Here, Thanks to Social Psychology

Chuck Ross Posted March 3, 2010 at 11:54 AM

The media really missed the boat reporting yesterday and today (March 2 and 3) on the sales of cars in the U.S. in February.

The headline for almost all of the reports was that the sales of cars made by embattled carmaker Toyota were down by almost 9%.

As those of us who are fans of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” know, while the popular choice made by the "audience" lifeline is generally right, every so often they blow it.

So it was with the press and this story about Toyota.

The real introduction to this story that newscasters should have reported is this: “Despite more negative publicity than almost any company has ever received about its products, Toyota sold 100,000 cars in February. Only General Motors and Ford, both with auto sales of about 140,000 each, sold more. Nine auto companies, including major players such as Honda, Nissan and Volkswagen, all sold few cars than embattled Toyota last month.”

The question here—and the brand lesson—is how Toyota was able to sell any cars last month, let alone be the nation’s third largest auto seller.

The first story that caught my attention about this phenomena was one I heard on National Public Radio last month. The report, emanating from a Toyota dealership, noted that despite its service department working overtime to repair Toyotas as part of the huge recall, the sales showroom was surprisingly busy with past owners looking to purchase new Toyotas.

Knowing about this potentially fatal problem that a number of Toyotas have, why would anyone actually go buy a Toyota right now?

First--and key here--is that most of the buyers are folks who have had Toyotas before. I fit in that category. The most reliable car I ever owned was a Toyota MR2 that I had for well over a decade and for close to 200,000 miles.

Would I consider buying a Toyota today? Actually, I would. Am I crazy? (Er, don’t answer that.) Are the people who bought 100,000 Toyotas in February crazy? What’s going on here?

I think it’s about cognitive dissonance. That's a theory in the field of social psychology. I learned about it in college. I’m certainly no psychologist, and I know some professional psychologists don’t buy this theory. But I’ve always found it compelling, especially in seemingly contradictory circumstances like we find with Toyota owners and their continuing to purchase Toyotas despite that fact that the cars may have life-threatening problems.

Here’s how the theory goes: You have a belief about something. In this case, people who have owned Toyotas in the past have learned to believe that they are one of the most reliable cars on the road, if not THE most reliable. They believe this because, in the past, Toyotas have indeed fit this description.

Now here comes this new information that is contradictory to that. Not only are Toyotas not actually reliable, they have a problem that is potentially life-threatening.

As someone who’s believed Toyotas are safe and reliable, what do I, and millions like me, do with this new information? One would think that the natural thing to do is to immediately change one’s view and say,”Well, Toyota has this problem and yes, I used to think they are good, but I’m not going to buy one now because I’m really worried about this problem and from what I’m reading I can’t be 100 percent positive that what they are doing will really fix the problem.”

But what actually happens for a lot us is this, consciously or not: “Hmm. I’ve always loved Toyotas. The Toyotas I’ve owned have always been great. I talked my sister-in-law into buying one. My cousin as well. They loved their’s too. Before I heard about this recall I was thinking of buying another one. Could I have been wrong about Toyota? There does seem to be a problem. OK, this might be a glitch. But it’s Toyota for chrissake. The best cars I’ve ever owned. This isn't anything like those Ford Pintos that blew up, or what Ralph Nader said years ago about the Corvair. Hell no. These are Toyotas. They ARE great!”

Yes, dear friends, it’s ye ol’ rationalization. I’ve now taken the new, negativne information about Toyota and processed it in such a way that I can still love Toyota.

Because I DO love Toyota, as do millions of others. Hey, have you seen the new Prius? Yeah, yeah, that brake problem is nothing. All fixed. But my God, even better mileage! And have you heard about the new solar roof panel that powers the ventilating fan? And on a hot day here in LA—yeah, yeah, that’s everyday here—how could you live anywhere else?—you can now turn on the air-conditioning while you’re walking to your car to cool it off! Yeah. Yeah. And…#