If you’ve watched any network TV in the past few months, you’ve been battered with the flood of car commercials touting the J.D. Power Awards. Most of the commercials are from General Motors featuring so-called “Real People, Not Actors” on obviously unreal commercial sets being wowed by Chevy cars and trucks that have won awards in what seems like thinly sliced categories.
Granted, some of the commercials are kind of cool the first or even tenth time you see them. The one with four cars suspended on platforms rising out of the ground took a lot of engineering to pull off. In the commercials, the “real people” are confused but delighted that it’s Chevy products that have collected all these J.D. Power awards. Even one of the participants in the commercial revealed that he didn’t really understand what the J.D. Power Awards are all about.
The awards come from J.D. Power, a marketing research agency that collects consumer responses for a variety of surveys, such as asking drivers about the reliability of their car, passenger seat comfort or the ease use of the sound system, then ranks car models based on the surveys.
GM and other automakers spend millions of dollars flagging these awards in ads. The question is, should you care? Do the awards tell you anything about the car or truck that you need to know?
So who is J.D. Power?
And what’s the big deal about these awards? First let’s start with Mr. James David Power III, the 86-year-old founder of the company. He worked for Ford’s tractor division in the 1950s and moved to an advertising agency before starting his own company. The first associates were his wife and their children, who tabulated survey results at the kitchen table, according to Jalopnik.
Today, the company uses online surveys for a variety of products. But the auto industry seems to make the biggest deal about it. The most valued surveys are Vehicle Dependability Study and the Initial Quality Study. The VDS asks car owners about problems in the first three years of ownership, while IQS asks an owner about problems in the first 90 days after purchase. IQS usually gets the most press because having issues in a new car tends to tick people off.
While J.D. Power has been around since the 60s, it was mostly an industry insider thing until 1984. During Super Bowl XVIII, Subaru aired the first commercial to quote its J.D. Power rankings. Since then, the company name has been mentioned in more than 2-billion print ads and 350-million TV spots.
To some extent, the J.D. Power awards are like the Kardashians – they’re famous for being famous. If you’ve had the phrase “J.D. Power Award” shoved into your eyeballs a million times, your brain is likely to remember it and lend it weight, even if you don’t know what it means. Remember when Google was just a funny word for an absurdly large number, most often seen in trivia questions? Now it’s freaking everywhere, and we all know you’re talking about the search engine and not the number.
The Initial Quality Survey Award is the most coveted by carmakers. The survey asks owners about problems with their cars during the first 90 days of ownership. Those problems can range from things like the Tesla 3 bumper falling off when it rains to a cup holder that gets in the way of the gear selector. The survey not only captures components that might fail early, but it also spots things that customers don’t like. Automakers sometimes listen and modify things customers find annoying, like complicated Bluetooth settings or grabby seatbelts.
However, the Vehicle Dependability Study may be more critical for your car purchasing decision. The VDS tracks the number of problems experienced per 100 vehicles during the past 12 months by original owners of three-year-old model vehicles. The survey asks about 177 specific problems grouped into eight major vehicle categories. Overall, vehicles are becoming more reliable, as the number of problems reported dropped 9% in 2017 compared to the previous year.
Pretty much all carmakers pay J.D. Power for access to their survey results. Some companies like Kia and Porsche rarely, if ever, mention the results in their advertising. A car company like GM that has battled consumer perceptions about low quality – well deserved in some cases – will use third-party recognition and mind-numbing repetition to help change consumers’ minds.
Why should you care?
Should you buy a car based on the J.D. Power rankings? They can be a useful benchmark. Of course, do more research, but vehicles that tend to score well with J.D. Power also show up at the top of lists by Consumer Reports and other reputable organizations. It’s probably not your first priority in choosing your next car but check out how some of your top choices scored in their categories before you decide.
Hopefully, GM’s ad buys will run out soon. Otherwise, I might sprain my thumb from jabbing the mute button.