A lot has changed since Top Gear's first episode in 1977. What started out as a rather dry test-drive programme has mutated into an instantly recognisable brand and byword for anything to do with motoring.
Ford Europe V-P of public affairs Stuart Dyble describes it as 'the most influential media channel for cars in the UK. The BBC realised the programme would work extremely well as entertainment instead of a specialist car programme. The Winter Olympics special in February, for instance, was basically light entertainment that
happened to include cars'.
The programme usually pulls in around five million viewers on its
Sunday evening slot, with 5.2 million tuning in for the Torino 2006 special. The male:female viewer ratio is around 60:40, perhaps surprising for a show that features opinionated men charging about in fast cars.
The secret to its success is the fusion of automotive and consumer lifestyle interests, says Andrew Francis, PR director at sports and motoring specialist Performance PR. 'It's not about nuts and bolts, and it's certainly not a petrol-head-exclusive brand. Both the TV show and magazine have an appeal beyond the traditional confines of specialist motoring media.'
The programme's researcher John Lakey says he frequently uses PROs for advice and contacts – sometimes running pieces on the back of pitched products – and reveals that perseverance can pay off. '[Inclusion of a product] can sometimes be over a year after the original sell-in,' he says.
'We get a lot of press releases but are looking for anything motoring-
related that will make a good story or is amusing,' he adds.
Lakey says that due to the hectic filming schedule of the programme, he prefers being contacted via email. 'Phone calls invariably come when your phone is turned off or when cameras are rolling,' he explains.
The show might be the holy grail of motoring coverage, but Ben Taylor, director at PR agency Fingal, warns that because of its structure of four features and three or four news items, opportunities are limited. 'The news section is usually the best bet,' he adds.
Satellite navigation firm TomTom had one of its devices featured on the show during a 'race across Europe' film in the last series. But Hill & Knowlton account director Dan Leach – whose agency secured the Top Gear slot for TomTom – says a product's exposure should be carefully managed.
'Jeremy Clarkson hates satellite navigation, whereas Richard Hammond loves it, so we managed to get the device fitted to Hammond's car,' says Leach. 'We went to the studio and showed him how it worked and made sure he was happy with it. If we'd have put it in the post and said "Good luck!", I'm sure the exposure would have been very different.'
But PROs who try too hard to manage a product may end up being singled out for ridicule by Clarkson – if not on the programme then in his columns for the magazine and The Sunday Times.
The fact that the programme has a more lifestyle, tongue-in-cheek feel these days widens the scope for coverage, but this does have its drawbacks. 'Some of our more technical clients are afraid that their products might be misunderstood,' reveals Automotive PR director Chris Wakely. 'Bosch, for instance, makes components for ESP [a new type of braking system]. Five's Fifth Gear did an in-depth feature on it, but I doubt Top Gear would have done the same even if it had covered it.'
Peugeot UK PR director Andrew Didlick says the Top Gear brand is strong enough to enable the BBC's spin-off magazine to reach readers unobtainable by the traditional motoring press. 'Although being covered on the programme exposes a product to a massive audience, the magazine has a big readership and more space to fill,' he explains.
Indeed, the magazine is the UK's biggest-selling motoring title, with an ABC of 175,218.
'Our readership split is 83 per cent male – compared with 85 per cent last year – so our female readership is on the increase,' says publisher Adam Waddell. 'I'm still surprised by this because we certainly don't aim to cater for women and our average reader is a 35-year-old man. But the TV programme is such a strong brand that
after watching it, female viewers will buy the magazine.'
As with the TV programme, stories for the magazine must be sold in on their entertainment value – and Waddell concedes that 'tenuous' links to cars are acceptable. 'We've got something in this month about guitars made by Chevrolet and computers made by Lamborghini. As long as it's interesting and has some sort of driving link, send over a short press release and a decent picture,' he advises.
The website is also worth considering. Anna Cox, an account director at Ogilvy PR Worldwide, convinced the online team to run a competition for car oil brand Castrol.
'It got an amazing response of more than 7,500 replies,' she says. 'The prize didn't have much monetary value, but was a tour of the Williams Formula 1 factory in Oxfordshire.'
With a month and a half before Clarkson, Hammond and James May hit the road again, PROs should be racking their brains for motoring
angles that will appeal equally to petrolheads and lifestyle audiences alike.