For many years, I’ve worn two hats, one as a Toyota dealer and the other as an advocate for car buyers and owners of all brands.
I take stringent measures to separate the two. As a consumer advocate for all car owners, I know that about 8 ½ out of 10 of all cars on the road are not Toyotas. Coming across as a Toyota dealer would appear to be self-serving and would cause me to lose all credibility and objectivity to the vast majority of car owners. Likewise, it would be unseemly for me, wearing my Toyota dealer hat, to remind my prospective customers that the Chevrolet Impala was rated higher than the Toyota Camry by Consumer Reports.
In my role as consumer advocate, I’ve written a book, Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer, write a blog, www.EarlStewartOnCars.com, tweet on @earloncars, post videos at www.YouTube.com/EarlOnCars, and write a column for the Hometown News. I also host “Earl Stewart on Cars”, a weekly radio show on WSVU, with my wife, Nancy. It’s a live call-in talk show that attracts one of the largest audiences in that time slot and car owners of all makes call me for advice and with their comments. I speak publicly all over South Florida at Chambers of Commerce, Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, churches and synagogues, condo associations, public libraries and any other organization that asks me to speak. I’m proud to say that I’ve been invited to speak at the annual installation banquet meeting of the famous 82nd Airborne Division this December 8. I’ve been interviewed and quoted often by the national media including CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, NY Times, Automotive News, US News and World Report, Fortune Forbes, and the Associated Press. I’ve lobbied for better laws and enforcement of existing laws with Florida politicians and I testified before the Florida Senate Commerce Committee in an effort to outlaw the dealer fee. I also work with the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, FADA, in efforts to create an enforceable code of ethics that can improve the sales practices, advertising and the image of Florida car dealers.
As a consumer advocate, to be totally objective, I cannot exclude Toyota dealers, the Toyota distributor (Southeast Toyota), or Toyota Motor Sales/Toyota Motor Corp. from criticism. How would it look for me to point out problems with only Honda, GM, Ford, Chrysler, and other non-Toyota dealers and manufacturers? When a Toyota dealer runs an illegal or unethical ad, it’s my duty to point this out to him and the public, just like I would a Honda or Ford dealer.
As you might surmise, I get a lot of heat from many car dealers. Incredibly, many accuse of me of being the reason they have such a bad image. The latest Gallup Annual poll again ranked car dealers last in ethics and integrity among all professions. Car dealerships also receive the greatest number of complaints among all retail businesses. Car dealers want to shoot me, the messenger, rather than look in the mirror.
Whereas you shouldn’t be surprised that other car dealers don’t like my role as consumer advocate, you might be surprised to know that Toyota doesn’t like it either. Toyota created a contractual document several years ago entitled the Toyota Dealer Ad Covenant, TDAC. The primary motivation for this document which all Toyota dealers must sign and agree to was to keep dealer advertising on the “up and up”. But there’s also language in the TDAC which prevents one Toyota dealer from being critical of another. It makes no difference whether the criticism is true and factual or not. The rationale behind this rule is that Toyota does not want its dealers to “damage Toyota’s brand”.
This is what I have a problem understanding. The Toyota brand is based on the quality of the cars they build and the positive perception of the Toyota manufacturer as a company that shows care, concern, empathy and integrity toward their own employees and their car owners. The Toyota brand ranking has always been very high. It slumped slightly after the sudden acceleration recall, but has currently risen back to #1 among all auto manufacturers.
The public sees the Toyota brand as separate and apart from the dealer brand. The brand of “John Smith Toyota”, the dealer, is based on how he treats his customers, how he advertises, and how ethically and honestly he sells and services Toyotas. Unfortunately, Toyota dealers’ brand image has been ranked consistently below average by JD Powers’ surveys of all other makes for many years, while Toyota, the manufacturer’s brand has always been very high. When a Toyota dealer damages his dealership brand, Toyota buyers give their business to the dealers with the better reputation. This is the way the free market place is supposed to operate and is what competition is all about. By “keeping quiet” about problems that Toyota dealers have, one prolongs the process of correction. In their advertising, all competing retailers compare their strong points to their completion. It’s survival of the fittest in the marketplace. There is very little, if any, correlation between Toyota’s brand and Toyota dealers’ brand; If there were, how could Toyota’s brand remain the highest and Toyota dealers’ brand remain near the lowest for so many years?
Toyota dealers compete against each other to a greater extent than they compete against other makes. Car buyers usually make up their mind which make they want to buy before they select their dealer. Their next step is to choose the dealer that they can most trust to give them a good price and treat them with courtesy, respect and integrity. For all Toyota dealers to be contractually forbidden to speak even the truth in criticism of another Toyota dealer seems almost like a restraint of trade. The car consumer should be entitled to all of the facts about the advertising and sales practices of those retailers that they buy from. Toyota dealers know more about this subject than anybody else. A Toyota dealer can tell you that the Honda dealer is using bait and switch advertising but he can’t say that about his Toyota competitor. But, with that said, I signed the TDAC and I will honor my commitment.
Unfortunately, there’s been some conversation recently about gagging the “other Earl Stewart”, Earl Stewart, the consumer advocate. It’s been suggested to me that I may be in violation of the Toyota Dealer Ad Covenant if I post a YouTube video of another Toyota dealer’s unethical TV ad on www.YouTube.com/EarlOnCars, a website that Earl Stewart the consumer advocate uses to expose illegal and unethical advertising by car dealers of all makes, including Toyota. Toyota is the largest seller of new cars in this market and for me to exclude them from criticism would come across as wrong and self-serving.
I didn’t forfeit my first amendment rights when I became a Toyota dealer. I remain a U.S. citizen and retain my rights of freedom speech as an individual and as a member of the press (my book, radio show, blog, and Hometown News column). I have to draw a line in the sand if anyone tries to take away my constitutional rights.