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In 1991 I purchased a four-year old Audi 5000 automobile for $2,500. When the car was new, it had been listed at $40,000. It was really beautiful inside. It had all sorts of electronic controls, powered everything, and it drove incredibly well. In fact, I can honestly say that the Audi 5000 was one of the nicest cars I have ever owned. In the entire time I owned the car, I had very few problems with it. The car was very comfortable in all respects and it cost me less than a much older, cheap compact car would have. As far as I was concerned, I had gotten the most fantastic deal imaginable.
I drove the car for a decent amount of time and was always a little upset that I sold it. The car was very well made and one of the main reasons I was driving it was because I did not care what other people thought.
You may be asking yourself how anyone could purchase such a great car for such a cheap price. It made a lot of sense at the time, since no one wanted to own an Audi 5000, which was considered “unsafe” and extremely dangerous by “everyone” due to a 60 Minutes episode called “Out of Control” which aired in 1986. Since that episode of 60 Minutes was broadcast, almost overnight the resale value of the Audi 5000 had been destroyed, and everyone was trying to unload these as quickly as they could. Anybody who wanted to could go out and purchase an Audi 5000 that was a few years old for pennies on the dollar.
“Out of Control” was all about complaints of “unintended acceleration” of the Audi 5000 car. The show featured a distraught mother, Kristi Bradosky, who had run over her six year old son when the car had allegedly lurched forward in her garage without warning. On Monday, December 18, 1989, the Wall Street Journal ran a story concerning the scare that had been generated by the 60 Minutes episode:
If you’re the kind of driver who sometimes has trouble finding the brakes in your car, you should be driving an Audi. Last month, in 35mph crash tests of an airbag-equipped Audi 100, the mannequin in the driver’s seat suffered the lowest crash force ever recorded by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, in this kind of test.
And yet, according to the Center for Auto Safety–a self styled public interest organization that sells its research to plaintiffs’ lawyers–the Audi 100’s predecessor, the Audi 5000, was as deadly as the Audi 100 is safe. It exhibited “sudden acceleration,” a fatal propensity to take off at full speed even as the terrified driver rammed the brake pedal to the floor.
CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a devastating exposé of the Audi 5000. Audi customers fled. Lawyers cashed in. The American public was saved, yet again, from the perils of technology gone awry. Only one little noticed footnote remains at the end: There was nothing wrong with the car.
The Audi story is by now, dismally familiar. “Sudden acceleration” accidents occurred when the transmission was shifted out of “park.” The driver always insisted he was standing on the brake, but after the crash the brakes always worked perfectly. A disproportionate number of accidents involved drivers new to the vehicle. When an idiot-proof shift was installed so that a driver could not shift out of park if his foot was on the accelerator, reports of sudden acceleration plummeted.
But a story to the effect that cars accelerate when drivers step on the accelerator doesn’t boost television ratings or jury verdicts. And driver error is understandably hard to accept for a mother whose errant foot killed her six year old son. So with the help of such mothers, CAS and CBS knitted together a tissue of conjecture, insinuation, and calumny. The car’s cruise control was at fault. Or maybe the electronic idle. Or perhaps the transmission.
60 Minutes, in one of journalism’s most shameful hours, gave air time in November 1986 to a self styled expert who drilled a hole in an Audi transmission and pumped in air at high pressure. Viewers didn’t see the drill or the pump—just the doctored car blasting off like a rocket.
Junk science of this kind moves fast. Real science takes time to catch up with this kind of intellectual cockroach and squash it. Government agencies in Japan and Canada, as well as in the US, conducted painstaking studies. The Canadians who are franker about such things, called it “driver error.” In America, where we can’t attach blame to anyone whose name doesn’t end with Inc., it was called “pedal misapplication.” And unsurprisingly, it’s not just Audi drivers who commit it.
So, in the long run, the truth does come out. In the short run, the lawyers swoop in. Most soon recognized that they couldn’t prove any defect in the Audi’s engine or transmission. But our liability system today is a master of the bait and switch—the switch was to “pedal misdesign.”
No doubt about it, the original Audi like other European cars, placed brake and accelerator pedals slightly closer together than is usual in many American designs. This allows the good driver to move faster between the pedals in highspeed emergency. Perhaps it also makes it easier for the bad driver to mix up the pedals. Nobody, including NHTSA, is quite sure whether, overall, the old Audi pedal placement was marginally better or marginally worse. End of case? Hardly. With Audi shellshocked and vulnerable from the earlier junk engineering claims, the pedal placement lawyers moved in.
The 60 Minutes story starred a mother who had run over her six year old son. On the air, she insisted that she had had her foot on the brake the whole time. When her $48 million claim came to court in Akron, Ohio, in June 1988 the investigating police officer and witnesses at the scene testified that after the accident the distraught mother had admitted that her foot had slipped off the brake. The jury found no defect in the car.
Trial judges in New Jersey and New York have overturned bad pedal design verdicts against Audi. Last July a federal court in Pennsylvania issued a summary judgment for Audi. And that should have been the end of Audi’s legal troubles.
Except that it wasn’t. An appellate court reinstated the New Jersey verdict: an appeal is pending. The New York case was settled before retrial. A California jury returned a $3.5 million verdict against Audi on a pedal placement theory, after the plaintiff’s lawyers abandoned a sudden acceleration claim. Another appeal is pending. Today, Audi is reportedly defending itself in more than 140 different suits, and damage claims are in excess of $5 billion. Not that the aggregate claims have the slightest connection with reality, of course. At one point, a single demented plaintiff in New York filed identical $5 billion claims in both federal and state courts; both have since been thrown out.
How about the US government safety report? In July, 1989, shortly after the report was released, Audi ran a hopeful advertisement titled “Case Closed.” “The case is not closed,” responded Robert Lisco, a Chicago plaintiffs’ attorney. “Those guys must be smoking something.” 60 Minutes never even acknowledged the final US findings, although it did grudgingly note identical conclusions of an earlier, blue-ribbon study, and then proceeded to rebroadcast inflammatory videos from the earlier segment. CAS denounced the government study and cheerfully cranked up yet another sudden acceleration smear, this one against Cadillacs. Lawyers for the “Audi Victims Network” brazenly declared that the report strengthened their clients’ cases.
They may be right. The largest suit now pending against Audi is an Illinois class action, ostensibly representing 300,000 or so Audi 5000 owners. The charge? That because of the sudden acceleration controversy, Audi’s have lost resale value.
Yes, sudden acceleration is real. A powerful engine kicks into gear without warning or reason. It crashes through a respected business, ruins the livelihood of hundreds of innocent dealers, and devalues the property of hundreds of thousands of bewildered car owners. The windfall goes to those who destroy and then successfully blame others for the wreckage. For heaven’s sake, where are the brakes?
As a consequence of the 60 Minutes story, sales of Audi’s in the United States collapsed. According to one account:
The show had an enormous impact in the marketplace. Sales of all Audi models in the US, which had peaked at 74,061 in 1985, plunged sharply after the 60 Minutes broadcasts. “It was a nightmare for the company,” says Thomas McDonald, former head of public relations at Audi’s parent, Volkswagen of America, Inc. “We lost billions of dollars in sales and revenues. Audi’s average annual sales of 14,000 cars from 1991 to 1995 were just 19 percent of its pre 60 Minutes peak.”
No one was ever able to duplicate the alleged occurrence of unintended acceleration with the car. Not a single person who filed a case against Audi ever won. Nevertheless, even to this day a perception still seems to linger in the marketplace that Audi’s are somehow dangerous and unsafe.
What the Audi example teaches and has always taught me is that perceptions are one of the most important things to take note of. 60 Minutes, with all of its marketing might, was able to shape perceptions and the way people viewed Audi cars. Despite the fact that nothing was wrong with the car, 60 Minutes changed the way an entire generation of people perceived the automobiles manufactured by a particular company, and this almost destroyed the company in the process. One of the most powerful and important aspects of our careers and our lives is how we are perceived by others and how we control our own perceptions of those around us.
People can use perceptions to their advantage or to their disadvantage. The most successful people are able to use perceptions to their advantage. After all, everything we may surmise about a person, a job, or any situation is based upon our perceptions. Often how something is perceived matters more than the facts surrounding it.
For years I have opened the paper each week and seen various advertisements by American car companies wherein they try and compare their cars with German or Japanese rivals. For example, the company may have a chart that shows that the American car stops in a five foot shorter distance, that the car accelerates a little faster that its Japanese counterpart and that its JD Power Initial Quality Survey score is higher. I have seen these advertisements and their corresponding charts for 25+ years–and every single year American manufacturers have sold fewer and fewer cars in the United States. At the same time, the Japanese have continued to sell more cars each year. What is going on here, I think, is that people simply have different perceptions. The Japanese cars are perceived as better. The advertisers can throw around all of the facts and figures they want. People simply tend to have a better perception of Japanese cars. Perceptions matter more than facts.
A couple of years ago my assistant was out purchasing me a little television for my bedroom. She called me from the store and gave me two options. One was a brand of television I had never heard of, LG, and the other was a Sony. She told me the LG one was bigger, had a nicer picture, and was a lot cheaper. I did not care. I told her to buy the Sony television. This was all because of my perception of the Sony brand. I had a much better perception of Sony than I had of LG, and consequently there were no facts that could change my mind–not even the fact that the LG model may have indeed had a bigger and better picture; and it definitely did cost less than the Sony model.
Many people feel that their job search and the quality of the job they get is a battle of their résumé, and that their entire future depends on what is visible on their résumé. For example, people who go to the best colleges often assume they will get a much better job than those who go to lesser colleges. People who have the best work experience believe they will generally get the best job. There is a tremendous amount of truth to this reasoning; however, more important than any of this is how we are perceived. Perceptions matter far more than facts.
When I was recruiting full time, I remember that I did not care as much about what was on someone’s résumé as who they were and how they were perceived. My greatest love in recruiting was managing how an employer perceived someone, which was always my greatest skill. Managing a perception instead of just the black and white characteristics surrounding a person was probably the most important thing I could do. I remember I met a girl once who was losing her job at a highly prestigious law firm in Los Angeles. I sat down with her and learned that she had grown up on a hippie colony with her parents, and that her father had some extreme beliefs about growing his own food and so forth. She had been rebelling against this lifestyle over the course of her entire life, and consequently she had become incredibly disciplined and motivated to succeed as a lawyer. This material made for incredibly interesting reading for the law firms that interviewed her, and I remember that her being perceived as someone who was “rebelling against the antiestablishment” went over very well. I remember writing a 15-page letter to the law firms about this aspect of this woman’s personality.
What most recruiters would have done with this girl is send her around to law firms and so forth without managing her presentation–and therefore the perceptions of those that might hire her. She would have simply been presented as someone seeking a position at a new firm, a girl who had had a job at a good law firm and who had attended a decent law school. This would not have done her too much good, however. What the best recruiters do and what really changes everything around for the job seeker is when the perceptions of the employers about the prospective employee are conscientiously and properly shaped.
There is a very good documentary on HBO about the disgraced Evangelical minister Ted Haggard. Haggard was a well known Evangelical leader who was the former president of the National Evangelical Association, representing 30 million Christians. He was also the Founder of the 14,000-member New Life Church. In 2006, Haggard resigned after a male prostitute claimed that Haggard had hired him numerous times for gay sex and used crystal meth with him. The fascinating documentary follows Haggard after being expelled from the Church as he moves from town to town looking for work. Unable to get a job, Haggard eventually gets a job as a traveling insurance salesman. Seeing Haggard go from a powerful man who is on top of the world and lecturing tens of thousands of people, meeting with American presidents, and being interviewed on major news programs–to someone whose entire range of possessions now fits in the back of a U-Haul truck was incredible.
What makes the Haggard story so interesting is that it shows, like the Audi example, that everything is about perceptions. The public perception of Haggard was changed overnight when it came out that he did not represent what he stood for, having engaged in behavior that was considered immoral. The public perception of Audi was changed overnight when people started to believe the car was incredibly dangerous, because of a news program. Ultimately, the truth was that the Audi 5000 was among the top cars in terms of safety on the road.
You need to realize the power of perceptions in your life, and to use them to your advantage. Aim to control, shape, and influence the perceptions that others have about you. Consciously work to create the image you will project to those around you.
One of the most fascinating things to me about recruiting has always been what happens when a given law firm gets a bad reputation. The law firm may have earned a bad reputation due to a partner going to prison, or due to consistent layoffs, or something else along these lines. In most cases, the reputation is confined to only one aspect of the law firm. For example, out of 10 practice groups in the law firm, there may be a problem with only one practice group–not every practice group. What ends up happening, however, is that people often do not go beneath this skin to recognize that the true problems within the law firm are really confined to only 10% of the entire organization. What this means is that there are less applicants and therefore more opportunities available for people to get jobs at this firm, who might not otherwise get jobs there. This is all due to a poor perception about the firm that is not well founded.
Perceptions are often far more important than facts. You will get a better job due to how you are perceived over and above how good your résumé is. You manage how you are perceived by the people you know, how you present yourself to the world and how your reputation will grow. The most important thing you can do in your life and career is make perceptions work for you.
Perceptions matter more than facts; others’ perceptions of you, your perceptions of others, and how you control both are the most important aspects of your career. Realize the power of perceptions in your life and use them to your advantage. Aim to control and shape the perceptions that others hold about you by shaping the image that you project to the world.
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