Electrek’s Editor-in-Chief, Publisher Both Scoring $250,000 Tesla Roadsters for Free by Gaming Referral Program
What happens to objective coverage when a free six-figure car is at play? Nothing good.
Tesla's clubby referral program has long rewarded enthusiastic owners for bringing their friends, family, and complete strangers into the electric car fold. The new buyer gets a nice little perk, the missionary climbs a lucrative pyramid of gifts, and everyone wins. Especially people like Electrek's Editor-in-Chief Fred Lambert, who's converted 69 people into battery believers and earned himself a free $250,000 next-generation Tesla Roadster.
The Drive has previously detailed the twisted ties that bind Tesla and Electrek, one of the more popular electric vehicle-focused websites out there and a constant champion of the company. We've also examined how that blatantly uncritical coverage crosses basic journalistic standards and does a disservice to both Tesla and Electrek's growing readership, who may or may not understand the mechanisms behind the scenes. But Lambert's latest disclosure of his six-figure-valued bounty shows why it's the use of the referral program that arguably raises the most eyebrows.
A quick look at Tesla's official rewards structure shows no such extravagant prizes, with an invite to an unspecified future product unveiling and a Powerwall home battery topping off the prizes at five referrals. That alone seems like a pretty sizable task for a regular Joe. (Imagine convincing five people to spend between $50,000 and $150,000 on anything.) But last summer, a secret bonus prize was revealed for owners who kept on converting: a progressive discount on a new Founders Series Tesla Roadster that would lower its $250,000 price to a whopping zero if you somehow managed to get 50 new buyers to sign on to the brand.
Sounds impossible, right? Not with the right platform—say, a website that counts legions of Tesla fans among its millions of monthly readers. As editor-in-chief and head writer, Lambert is responsible for the vast majority of the site's content, and the link to his Tesla referral code is at the bottom of every single story he puts out. The same is true for Electrek owner and publisher Seth Weintraub, who just crossed that magic 50 mark himself. Both previously defended the practice in part by pointing out that neither of them had scored enough for a free car. That no longer appears to be the case.
We reached out to Weintraub and Lambert and asked how they squared receiving this kind of reward with providing objective coverage of Tesla. Weintrab's three-word response: "Nothing has changed." Lambert previously defended his use of the program to Automotive News by stating that he's participating as a private owner, not as part of an arrangement to promote the company. Both maintain they've always been clear about their actions, intentions, and opinions—one of which just happens to be that Tesla is the future, full stop.
Surprisingly, this kind of number-pumping isn't expressly forbidden in the program's terms, and Weintraub and Lambert aren't the only ones who've leveraged their visibility into a free car. YouTuber Ben Sullins has actually earned two free Roadsters by convincing more than 100 people to buy a new Tesla. But that's YouTube, where opinions run wild; Electrek presents itself as a well-sourced news site that can be depended on for reliable scoops, whose reports are often linked to by other outlets whose management would probably blanch at the ethical minefield lying just under the surface.
And ultimately, that's the problem. Lambert's disclosure of his free $250,000 car at the very bottom of a story where most readers are just looking at the latest pictures of the Roadster—which by the way, still doesn't exist outside of a single prototype as far as we know—is emblematic of the flimsy legitimacy Electrek stands upon. (Consider the fact that Weintraub and several unnamed writers also own Tesla stock, which is only disclosed on the site's "About" page.)
But the site is usually treated as just another zippy automotive news blog in mainstream conversation, one whose focus on electric vehicles makes it a daily stop for a growing number of EV adopters and fans. In reality, reluctant disclosure is masked as transparency, pointed advocacy as basic objectivity. Something is rotten in the state of Electrek, but it's got that new car smell. Half a million dollars worth of it.