Executives at ABC affiliates were quick to criticize a move by Toyota dealers in the southeast who pulled ads from local stations over early and repeated reporting on Toyota woes by ABC News.
"We realize that they feel as if ABC should be held responsible for breaking the story," says Patti C. Smith, president and general manager of KVUE, the ABC affiliate in Austin. "My feeling is, use the same power of our station to resolve the story for the viewers."
A marketing agency representing 173 dealers in Florida, George, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina told ABC affiliates last week that purchased spots were being pulled because of "excessive stories on the Toyota issues," according to ABC News.
The Los Angeles Times broke the story. And Brian Ross, ABC News' chief investigative correspondent, has been reporting on problems with Toyota accelerators since November, well before the onslaught of national media attention that precipitated a recall of nearly nine million vehicles.
A request for comment to Toyota's national marketing office was not returned. Representatives for Gray TV, which operates eight affiliates in the southeast, could not be reached by press time.
Toyota has been the target of intense criticism for failing to publicly address the calamity quickly. Akio Toyoda, Toyota's president and the grandson of the company's founder, made his first public appearance last Friday (Feb. 5). Speaking at Toyota corporate headquarters in Nagoya, Japan, Toyoda conceded that the company is "facing a crisis."
"I offer my apologies for the worries," he said. "Many customers are wondering whether their cars are OK."
Toyoda stopped short of ordering a recall for the top selling Prius hybrid. (Update: Toyota announced on Feb. 9 the recall of nearly 500,000 Prius and other hybrid cars.)
Two weeks ago, the Japanese auto-maker began pulling television commercials that stressed "dependability," "safety" and "reliability" of its vehicles. Toyota is attempting to address the manufacturing mistakes in new spots. A Toyota commercial that ran during the Super Bowl stressed that "Toyota dealers" are "focused on the safety of their customers."
Buyers note that Toyota is likely pulling as much money as possible out of advertising market now so that they can spend later - when they will need to win back customer confidence. And ABC affiliates have already born the brunt of that pull back.
"What they say to us is, you're an ABC affiliate. We're going to be cutting back everywhere, but we're cutting you most," said a general manager in a mid-size market in the south.
Station executives point out that it's not unusual for business owners to complain about stories coming out of the network. But punitively cancelling advertising is highly unusual.
"I can't remember the last time we saw such a big action like this against a bunch of TV stations," says another GM in a northeastern market. "I would not be surprised if this spreads."
Bill Fee, vice president and general manager of WCPO in Cincinnati, said that the station received a notice over the weekend from local dealers alerting them that they would be receiving new creative this week.
"The dealers in this area have been very open," says Fee. "They're working extremely hard to fix the problem, but also let Toyota owners know what to do."
Station executives note that cancelling advertising due to lagging sales, for instance, is not unusual. But they caution that punitively scrapping an account would ultimately prove counterproductive.
"There is a message that needs to get out," says Fee. "There is a lot of confusion. People who own Toyota cars need to know where to take their cars. It doesn't do any good to bury your head in the sand."