Attack on the Net

In the midst of dot-com mania, one radio ad campaign takes the offensive against online commerce.

Published October 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Listening to the radio in the San Francisco Bay Area these days, you could be excused for believing that the entire U.S. economy consists of nothing except Internet companies. We used to enjoy variety in our commercial-listening lives. No more -- now it's just dreary monotony, a parade of vacuous baritones chanting the dot-com mantra. Never mind that most of these Internet start-ups themselves aren't earning any profits -- their advertising budgets alone are sufficient to propel national economic growth sturdily forward. That's progress, in the new economy.

But on Sunday, while listening to a 49ers football game on the radio, my ears perked up when I heard an advertisement that actually attacked the Internet. The ad -- for a prominent Bay Area car dealership -- stood out as a welcome counterpoint to the usual unremitting Net hype. But at the same time, the commercial had a paradoxical effect on at least one listener -- me. Suddenly dot-com gold-rush fever made more sense to me than it had for years.

The commercial opens with a woman complaining to a car salesman about her disappointment with the experience of shopping for cars over the Internet. While the salesman makes supportive noises, she explains that you really need to kick the tires of a new car and take it for a test drive before buying it. The thrust of the ad is inarguable -- the Internet just can't substitute for that new car smell. The salesman agrees, and then he notes something along the lines of "and we don't give you cookies here, either."

The customer expresses confusion. "Cookies?" she asks. The salesman explains -- cookies are files that Internet Web sites place on your computer's hard drive. What's worse, the salesman intones ominously, cookies can be used "to monitor where you go and what you do on the Internet."

OK -- there's no doubt that Internet users should be a little bit leery of cookie files. Such files can be used to track our comings and goings across Web sites and the Net. But cookie files aren't pure Big Brother evil. Cookie files allow some Web sites to store your password, username and preferences so you don't have to reenter them every time you visit that site. It's also easy to delete your cookie file, or set your Web browser preferences to alert you each time a Web site attempts to write a cookie file on your hard drive.

Of course, the creators of this particular advertisement weren't interested in presenting a nuanced appreciation of the pros and cons of cookies. Their goal was to discourage potential customers from searching the Net for information about cars, or, even worse, actually buying cars online. Just the fact that the ad exists suggests that Internet auto sales are seriously cutting into dealership profit margins. But by their own choice of tactics, the ad's creators demonstrated exactly why car buyers are flocking online.

Doesn't it make sense that you would want to kick the tires first? Sure, no argument there. What you don't want to do, however, is negotiate with a car dealer who uses high pressure tactics and sleazy insinuations to make a sale, who preys upon your own insecurities to get you to buy a model of a car you don't want and can't afford.

Such considerations are precisely what made the car dealer commercial I heard such a beautiful, self-revealing work of art. The salesman's reference to the evil cookie, to those sneaky Web site operators who might be watching your every move, is exactly the kind of underhanded scare tactic that has long given car dealers a bad name. Stay at home with us, suggests the ad. We'll take care of you. Don't go to the Internet to buy a car -- it's too dangerous.

Actually, the Internet is dangerous for car salespeople who want to close deals without offering real value to consumers, or who want to spread unfounded rumors about their competitors. We can rail against Internet hype all we want, and there is certainly no shortage of dot-com targets who deserve ridicule and abuse, but all the Net flimflam that ever was or will be won't obscure the fundamental usefulness of the Internet for consumers.

No medium of communication has ever been more suited to the task of comparison shopping -- for finding out what truly is the best price on the object of your desire -- whether it be car, book, CD or Red Sox playoff tickets. Car dealers must gnash their teeth when prospective customers walk into the showroom armed with accurate list prices and possible model options. They must writhe with agony when they realize they aren't just competing against their neighbors down the street but with every other car dealership within hundreds of miles. Too bad. They have only themselves to blame.

We hear a lot of moaning in the book world about how saintly independent booksellers are being wiped out by evil online juggernauts like No one wants to see the plucky little guy stomped by the faceless big corporation. But I doubt you'll hear much lamenting for the local car dealerships that get driven out of business by Autoweb or Carpoint. For millions of consumers, buying a car used to be a painful process, much more painful than it should have been. If the Internet can make it more pleasant -- and more honest -- then maybe there really is a reason for all that dot-com mania after all.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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