Chuck Ross

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

Mar 3, 2010

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…#


  1. If the Toyota’s weren’t so boring…
    The styling, engines…etc do NOTHING for me. “Quality, reliability”…yes, exciting…NO.

  2. This article is like paid news sponsered by Toyota! If the writer wrote this article by visiting any sales office of Toyota and after talking to the consumers over there an can understand that it was genuin excersie. But the writer did not visited any salesman of the company. He did not probe why at the first place production error was happened? What company is assuring their client?
    This article just saying how Toyota is reliable. Not probing the situation

  3. Why does the media print only the total sales number[which includes fleet]for the month while ignoring retail only numbers for the month which tells as Paul Harvey saids “the rest of the story”!

  4. Toyota is being used as the scape goat for unintended acceleration. According to department of transportation records Ford has had more documented complaints in the pass 24 months than Toyota has. Makes one wonder. The truth of the matter is that the department of transportation last revisited their acceleration standards in 1973 and it is a 2 page document. It is a miracal that there are not more cases of unintended acceleraton that what we are told about.

  5. Where can I find this information? This seems like a witch hunt. I just checked dot.gov and they don’t even list the current “Stop Sale” on the Chevy Cobalt. Very fishy!!!!!

  6. Subhash, let’s be fair and sound-minded here. Have you talked to the author? Have you probed with neutral mindset, visiting dealers and talk to not just those who don’t like Toyota, but also those who love them? The congressmen and NHTSA offficials and even President’s secretary, they are aware that Toyota makes good cars, even in the US factories by US workers, and they want to help Ford and GM. Do you know Ford and GM are offering special incentives for those trading in Toyotas? Nice team work, right? They have succeeded, to certain degree. We’ll see in the long run. For you, however, do you believe the spin, or the truth? Have you driven a Toyota? Now, are you paid by Ford or GM? Or, you just don’t like Toyota, like some do. Then, please just say it. Don’t distort the truth.

  7. If you want to buy a car that may or may NOT stop when you want it to..it will fill out the saying that Nature gets rid of the slow and ignorant. Or maybe you just like to sue big auto companies..whatever…I don’t like the way Toyota handled the whole affair and so buying one of their cars is way on the back burner with me.

  8. Over the years, I have owned 11 Toyota vehicles, currently owning a 2006 Sienna and a 2010 Prius. I have had nothing but outstanding performance and reliability from all of the vehicles. I can certainly see why on a recent reliabiilty study, Toyota vehicles rank 17 out of 20 in reliabilty. 20 being most reliables. The three better are very expensive automobiles.
    I feel the media had treated Toyota very unfair which makes me even more defensive and makes me even more supportive to the extend that viewing the new Sienna could make me a proud owner of one of them in the near future.

  9. If you think Toyota’s are boring, apparently you haven’t driven a V6 Camry Sport!!!!! 268 horse power is anything but boring!

  10. When I got my driven license as age seventeen my father gave me a Toyota truck. Although, this Toyota truck had more than 125,000 miles, however, I managed to drive this truck for another 137,415 miles. Since then, I have owed more than 7 differences Toyota vehicles, including a Lexus.
    If Ford, GM, or any other auto maker paid me to test drive or drive its vehicle I would not do it because I do not want to be broken down in the middle of nowhere.
    With Toyota, I feel safe, Toyota make excellent vehicles.

  11. The issue no one wants to admit to, is that Toyota cheapened it’s product 4 – 5 years ago, in order to increase profits, while depending on its quality reputation from the past, and media advertising blitz’s of propaganda spouting how wonderful they are.They have billions of dollars in the bank, that they got by increasing their margins.
    They have to know that there is a problem with electronics, probably in the cpu (ecm), but are skating around it, because that would be very expensive for them to fix. Toyota owners, stop and think, if UA happens to you, they are going to say driver error, as they have already done. Do you want to buy from a company who has issues like this, denies there is a problem(s), and subtlely is calling you an idiot!

  12. Truly amazing. They’re running ads thanking people for buying the cars. Who would have thought they had so many potential people to choose from.

  13. Even before the recall…I hated Toyotas (and foreign cars in general) Eff what you heard, my Chevrolet has served me well, and has since 1989. They can take a hit pretty well, and are more reliable that those rice burners…provided you are not lazy about performing the necessary maintenance. This recall is nothing more than ANOTHER reason not to buy a foreign car. Toyotas are overrated.

  14. Chuck, you’ve got it backwards.
    Isn’t the real story that Toyota knew for many months that it had defective and potentially deadly car problems and they tried to cover it up?
    Evidently Toyota acted in its own self interest until it was compelled to do the recall. Perhaps you think that’s okay. I think $16 million fine was not enough.

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