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The longtime New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell—the bestselling author of Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers and, most recently, Talking to Strangers—is flouting the conventions of journalistic ethics by appearing in a series of television commercials for General Motors.
The issue of ethics in journalism has gained currency this week with the revelation by BuzzFeed News that New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks failed to disclose to readers his significant financial remuneration from Weave, a community-building social project of the Aspen Institute—largely funded by Facebook and Amazon—that has been a frequent subject of Brooks’ columns.
By contrast, Gladwell’s star turn in GM’s commercials could hardly be more public.
The 58-year-old Gladwell, who has been writing prolifically for The New Yorker since 1996, is no ordinary journalist. He’s a huge star—a famous popularizer of the social sciences, and a mixed-media phenom who goes on late-night talk shows, hosts podcasts, co-founded his own podcast company whimsically titled Pushkin Industries, serves on the board of the Rand Corporation, and commands six-figure lecture fees.
And now, he’s a paid celebrity endorser for GM’s “next generation” electric vehicle innovation campaign.
“We have a six-month contract for those ads, and that’s the extent of our relationship with him,” Stuart Fowle, GM brand and digital communications manager, told The Daily Beast. The automaker and defense contractor spends around $3 billion annually on advertising, and Gladwell’s talent agents at WME, the entertainment powerhouse, presumably would have negotiated for a tasty crumb of that pie.
“We generally don’t comment on costs of things, but yeah, you can make that assumption,” Fowle said. “I can confirm we’re paying him for his involvement in the ads.”
While Gladwell argues that he seldom writes for The New Yorker anymore—his last piece (about the safety of marijuana) was published in 2019—and thus is not bound by constraints that apply to working reporters, the GM gig is raising eyebrows among journalism traditionalists.
“This would not have been allowed at any publication I worked for,” said former newspaper reporter and editor Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “Nor would Merrill College ever teach that it is okay for a staff writer to endorse commercial products of any sort.”
Prominent author Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, emailed The Daily Beast that Gladwell “should donate his fee to nonprofits that promote renewable energy. It’s one thing when a ballplayer accepts a fee for appearing in a commercial. The ballplayer’s prestige does not rest on his or her reputation for freedom from commercial interests—in other words, truthfulness.”
Gitlin added: “A widely published journalist should not be shilling for a private company unless he is beyond suspicion of accepting payment for an endorsement. If he pockets the check, he damages his reputation for being a straight shooter. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that something goes wrong with GM’s EVs; suppose there are recalls, etc. (It’s not uncommon.) Wouldn’t Gladwell be, if nothing else, embarrassed?”
Gladwell, for his part, stoutly defended his participation in GM’s ads, emailing The Daily Beast: “oh for goodness sake, this is a mountain out of a molehill. i have written exactly one article for the magazine in the last five years [actually six articles]… i have moved on to an entirely different business”—namely, podcasting.
Addressing Gitlin’s criticisms, Gladwell noted that the podcast he hosts, Revisionist History, depends on advertisers just like every other podcast. (That also applies to podcasts hosted by writers at The Daily Beast.)
“The students Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia Journalism School pay over $100,000 a year for the privilege of hearing him speak. Because we do advertising, the people who listen to Revisionist History and the other podcast offerings of Pushkin Industries get their podcasts for free,” Gladwell emailed. “If Professor Gitlin would like to discuss the relative ethical implications of those two systems, I’d be happy to oblige.”
However, reading ad copy to tout a product that supports your podcast—and Gladwell says he has done more than 100 such commercials for such companies as Ziprecruiter and Hotel Tonight—is arguably different in kind and degree from a lucrative deal to lend one’s face, voice, and reputation to a global corporate behemoth whose subsidiaries span not only automaking but also financial services, scientific research, communications technology, and government defense contracting.
Gladwell appears in three out of four commercials that GM rolled out in the past two weeks. He’s most prominent in the so-called “anthem” spot that opens with the writer stepping onto the bare chassis of an electric vehicle-in-development.
“Change,” Gladwell intones, straight to camera. “You can either resist it, be left behind, or embrace it, and move forward.” After a series of quick cuts to other celebs and influencers, including pro surfer and shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton, Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby, and gamer Erin Simon, Gladwell reappears to declare: “And that changes everything.”
“[D]o i think it raises ethical issues? not really,” Gladwell, a former colleague of this writer at The Washington Post, said in a lengthy email. “i mean i spent my two previous careers at institutions supported by ad dollars. the only difference now is that the practice in my new industry is that the host does the ad him or herself. but i’m not sure why that difference amounts to an ethical distinction. when you and i worked at the post way back when, our salaries were paid by [department stores] woodies and hechts!! not much has changed.”
Gladwell added: “i’m now really devoted to building pushkin… i’ve done well over 100 commercials at this point. every podcast host has. it’s how we pay the bills! i actually really enjoy doing them. and especially writing them—when i get the chance. (i wanted to be a copywriter way back when). my producer jacob smith and I did a series for ziprecruiter about the travails of horace throgbottom III (partner of the firm throgbottom, throgbottom and throgbottom) that I’m particularly proud of. we also did something for hotel tonight about how psycho would never have happened if janet leigh had hotel tonight. i was inordinately proud of that one…
“i try to stick to brands i use or believe in. so tracksmith makes the best running stuff in the world, and i’m a big runner. so that was a natural. [Without being identified last November, Gladwell did a Tracksmith commercial’s poetic voiceover.] i’m also a MASSIVE car nut. (i spend an embarrassing amount of time in bringatrailer.com and the car and driver website). and if you are into cars, then you’re into GM, since they are the engineering gold standard. (i would give my eye teeth for a low mileage [Cadillac] cts-v wagon.)”
Gladwell’s commercial relationship with GM began when the company’s marketing department contacted him because of his October 2017 article about driverless vehicle technology in Car and Driver magazine.
“We knew that he was interested in this space, and obviously his book The Tipping Point was all about being the tipping point for change,” GM’s Fowle said, noting that initial discussions with Gladwell were about his involvement in the company’s exhibit for this year’s (virtual, due to the pandemic) Consumer Electronics Show—for which the writer did a video interview of GM President Mark Reuss. “That interview and Malcolm’s involvement in our CES exhibit started the conversation… and got him involved in the filming of the campaign.”
The commercials began appearing nationally on television and online in mid-February, Fowle said, and remain ubiquitous on TV screens.
As for The New Yorker, Gladwell continues to be listed as a staff writer.
“Many of our staff writers are independent contractors, as Malcolm is, and are therefore free to take on outside work,” said a spokesperson for the magazine. “We have no plans for Malcolm to write about the auto industry.”
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