Monday, March 15, 2010

Redefining Toyota

So much has been written about Toyota and its travails; I won't analyze the company's missteps in handling the unintended acceleration issue other than to say that the situation has severely dented (if not crumpled) their reputation as a quality automaker.

I thought I came across the ultimate illustration of that damaged reputation while reading a New York Times article recently. The article was totally unrelated to Toyota or the auto industry. It was about the publication of a book, The Last Train from Hiroshima, by Charles Pellegrino. In his book, Pellegrino relates some fascinating revelations surrounding the watershed bombing flight that ushered in the atomic warfare era. Those revelations were based on the recollections of an airman, Joseph Fuoco, who purportedly flew on one of the observation planes as a last-minute replacement.

The only problem, say historians and family members of the flight crew, is that Fuoco never flew on the mission. Pellegrino now admits he was "probably duped" and plans to correct the paperback and other editions of the book. Being an avid reader of World War II history, I read through the full article until I came upon a description of the apparently-tainted book by an atomic historian. "This book is a Toyota," said Robert S. Norris, the author of "Racing for the Bomb" and an atomic historian. "The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record."

There you have it: a new synonym for a fault, mistake, error: Toyota. Will it make it into the lexicon? The Toyota brand has certainly become a late-night punch line and the subject of faux ad slogans like Toyota: We're Unstoppable. Whether or not it also becomes a new way to describe bad products in general will be determined by the actions Toyota takes in the next few weeks and months to rescue its name. With the belated appearance of Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company founder, a number of people raised the question why the company name is different from the family name. The Toyota web site says one of the factors in the change was that the number of strokes used to write "Toyota" in Japanese is eight, considered an auspicious or lucky number. Right now, the number that concerns Toyota most is 10 – which is how many percentage points Toyota sales in the U.S. fell in February amidst the sudden acceleration crisis.

An interesting side note on using car names to describe other products: in the current health care debate, politicians, pundits and the media alike all use one term to describe high-end or luxury health care plans: Cadillac – not Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. In spite of GM's woes, Cadillac apparently hasn't lost its ability to symbolize luxury.

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