Buyer Beware.

The complainant, Richard Jiang, thought two Marketplace episodes about car service centres overselling repairs and maintenance missed the mark because they relied on the views of the experts and did not question the standards they were using. They were using the car manufacturer’s Owner’ Manual, which is considered the standard by the industry and by regulators. There was nothing biased or inappropriate.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about two episodes on Marketplace which dealt with advice given at car dealerships regarding servicing of vehicles. You said you are a heavy-duty mechanic and have had a lot of experience maintaining vehicles. One programme presented evidence that some dealers recommend repairs and maintenance that are not necessary according to the standards in the owner’s manual. The other episode showed evidence that service centre representatives suggest oil changes more frequently than the manufacturers do. The programme assessment was based largely on the protocols prescribed by the manufacturers and the conclusions of mechanics and those who used to work in the industry. You said these programmes were biased because the conclusions sided with the expert opinion, which you disputed. You thought it was all a ratings-grab:

CBC wants to portray every service center as dishonest people to create a story to air. There are differing opinions on vehicle maintenance. You could brush your teeth only once a week but the safer practice is once or twice a day. So you could change your oil once a year, but the safer duration based on your driving habits is once every four to six months. But CBC would rather get an expose instead of educated decisions.

You thought CBC should present some of the alternative views on proper schedules for vehicle maintenance. You stated that the manufacturers’ suggestions should not be taken at face value - there were many cars that were “lemons” and that was not raised at all. CBC did not look into the quality of the products in these programmes, which you consider critical to providing a full picture:

… I have seen personally the engineering of products to fail. Planned obsolescence. You would think this issue would be Marketplaces' bread and butter. I am a commercial Heavy duty mechanic by trade and have worked for government and my for own shop. When you service extreme duty vehicles which operate 24 hours a day, prevention is key to avoid the cost of failures. Vehicles are serviced monthly, not annually.

You focused on two aspects of the programmes, in particular. In the episode about car maintenance, you thought the expert in the story did not give the proper advice on the replacement of spark plugs. While he suggested that the car owner could follow the manufacturer’s requirement to change them at 160 thousand kilometres, you cautioned they should be checked, greased and reinstall them if they still look good. Otherwise, you cautioned, there is a danger they would be difficult to remove and thereby damaging the heads. You felt it was a disservice not to mention the potential problems of leaving in a spark plug for up to 10 years.

You also took issue with a segment in a second programme regarding oil change schedules. You challenged the programme for using the manufacturer's schedule as the benchmark:

The other issue is oil change duration. Again the manufacturers want you to run your engine to the edge of safe reliability. There are many dead engines because the manufacturers went to lighter oils and longer ranges. The issue is not about oil effectiveness. The issue is general safe practices for engine reliability. If you only run you vehicle short distances and it never gets to operating temperatures that burns off the carbon and moisture in your engine, those contaminants remain in the oil and cause engine wear due to the grinding particles and oxidation.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of Marketplace, Litsa Sourtzis, replied to your complaint. She pointed out that the two programmes in question examined specific concerns - the scheduled maintenance of vehicles and the variation in the recommendations made by car dealership employees. She explained that is why while “lemon cars” are a valid area of examination, “potential faults in the vehicle manufacturing process of some cars was not relevant to the focus of those two episodes.”

She said in preparation of the episode entitled “Testing Service Centres: Is Your Car Dealership Ripping You Off?” the producers spoke to many former employees whose job it was to make those recommendations to people bringing cars in for servicing. In many instances, they said they were encouraged to “upsell” customers by suggesting repairs and maintenance they did not really need. She noted that the programme also mentioned service centres which recommended work consistent with the manufacturer’s manual.

She addressed your skepticism about using the car manual as the benchmark for decisions about repairs and maintenance. She explained that the mechanic featured in the programme was highly qualified and that his standard was supported by other independent mechanics that programmers spoke to while researching for this report. She added Transport Canada also uses the recommendations in the Owner’s Manual and Owner’s Manual Supplement as guidelines:

He said that the maintenance requirements are unique for each vehicle and those intervals are clearly outlined in the owner’s manual which is what every driver should be following. His recommendation about scheduled maintenance and the owner’s manual was also corroborated by the advice of other independent mechanics we interviewed as part of our research. Transport Canada has stated, “We wish to advise that service intervals are determined by the manufacturers. We recommend to follow the manufacturer maintenance intervals that you can find in your Owner’s Manual and Owner’s Manual Supplement.”

She acknowledged that different experts might have different opinions about a car’s maintenance needs when it comes to matters like the spark plug problem you mentioned. She told you that the car which was featured only had 50 thousand kilometers - which is a third of the mileage recommended by the manufacturer - and in this case two other mechanics agreed there was no need to change the spark plugs.

She replied to your criticism that the oil change segment did not mention that driving short distances might affect the quality of the engine oil, despite the recommended schedule for oil change:

In the episode, we only featured cars that have a built-in oil maintenance mechanism where a light turns on when the driver needs to change the oil. According to the manufacturers, this technology addresses time, distance and special driving conditions, and consequently the issue you raised about short distances would be mitigated by the oil change light technology.

She said balance was achieved by mentioning service centres which did not try to upsell and by the programmers’ efforts to include the perspective of the businesses that did. In the case where some response was provided, it was included in the broadcast.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy relating to consumer programming:

Consumer information programs are intended to help consumers make informed choices of goods and services or to show how to solve certain problems. This is consistent with the mandate to inform citizens so that they may make decisions on public issues.

The conclusions set out in this kind of reporting are based on thorough research and not on personal opinion. Research for such programming will be meticulous and will be carried out as much as possible in consultation with competent organizations and specialists.

This describes precisely what happened in the two Marketplace editions you cited. The mandate of this programme is to highlight practices and problems consumers encounter with businesses and organizations who deliver goods and services to the public. By definition, this means it will highlight the negative. In this case, those service centres who were suggesting maintenance or repairs that were not needed. As Ms. Sourtzis pointed out, the programme also mentioned companies that did not behave in this manner.

While one expert was presented on air, others were consulted. I should also point out that in several cases independent testing was done on the cars, and the results contradicted the conclusions of the service providers. Here is what happened when David Common, the reporter who did the oil change segment, brought a sample of one car’s oil to a specialist for analysis:

DAVID COMMON

A marketing ploy? Time to call in science - Fluid Life in Brantford, Ontario. It's one of the largest providers of oil analysis, in North America. Manager Mark Shierman first pumps out a sample to be tested. He also takes a sample of brand new unused oil

MARK SHIERMAN

Just a little basis of comparison.

DC

Certainly looks darker, but does it need to be changed?

The samples are then shaken, weighed, and placed in this ICP spectrometer.

MS
What we're doing here is we're taking the sample, inserting it into the instrument, and it burns it at temperatures that are actually hotter than the sun.

We're really looking at whether or not the oil looks, like it is in a typical state for your engine, or whether it looks like it's in an unacceptable state.

DC

The results should tell us whether the oil in the jeep is still good

Give me the upshot, what have you found?

MS
Overall these engine oil results look really good, actually. Ah, there was a slight amount of oil degradation, but the contamination level was nice and the wear metals were quite low.

You questioned the value of taking the manufacturer’s suggestion at face value because they could be wrong. It is hard to know what other benchmark would be appropriate. There are mentions about each vehicle being individual, but the fact remains that this is both the industry and regulatory standard. To have cherry-picked which standards to apply would have rightly opened the programme to charges of subjectivity. Journalists are not meant to be absolute experts in a field, but to work with well-informed and documented experts. There may very well be times when a regulatory body or company has questionable standards - but there is no indication that is the case here. There will always be outliers and exceptions, but that was not the purview of these programmes.

The producers and reporters did not arbitrarily look at these practices - they were responding to consumers concerns. Nor did they take those at face value. They researched and provided important background and context about why, in the servicing of vehicles, buyers should beware. The episode on car servicing also included a former service advisor who explained that “when you’re a service advisor, you are a salesperson. This is how you make your living, right? So you have to upsell them. They come in for an oil change, you’re upselling somebody.” He also mentioned that more than half of his salary came from commissions, a strong incentive to sell services.

Both episodes attempt to get the perspective of the service providers, and when they did respond, that was included in the broadcast.

These two programmes presented evidence about the practices of car dealerships and provided facts and expert opinions to back it up. It fully conformed to CBC journalistic standards.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman