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GM: Wrong Message, Medium, Moment (Just Being “Completely Honest”)

A fairly brilliant spoof of GM’s “re: invention” spot is making its way around the Net.  It’s easy enough to make fun of GM from A to Z (A is for Aztec…B is for Buick…C is for Cimarron…), but this spoof points to something broader: a complete distrust of GM’s voice, message and methods.  Any advertisement that begins with “let’s be completely honest” is setting itself up for mockery (and failure), especially in a networked world.  Shame on IPG’s Deutsch and McCann agencies for letting that line make the spot, much less lead it.

In fact, GM undoes itself from the get-go with this effort.  “Let’s be completely honest” is followed by “no company wants to go through this.”  If we are going to be “completely honest,” let’s define the “this” here, shall we?  Failure.  Bankruptcy.  Government control.  Generations of bad design and worse labor relations.  Complete honesty and indefinite antecedents don’t go together; complete honesty requires a specificity of voice. 

Then, we hear, “There was a time eight brands made sense…not any more.  There was a time when our cost structure could compete worldwide…not any more.”  Indeed, and that time was a full generation ago, when companies like Toyota and Nissan (then Datsun) came to our markets.  Yet, GM continued to build undesirable cars, including bringing the Hummer to market as Toyota developed the Prius.  Not anymore?  “Not yet” would be more accurate. 

We are also told that GM will be more focused, more agile…“leaner, greener, faster, smarter.”  If such things are as easy as saying so, why wait until now?  Not one word about government-owned, or the inefficiencies and bureaucracies and political standoffs that come with that.  Since we’re being “completely honest” shouldn’t we also admit that GM (and its comparatively small workforce of 60,000 direct employees) has been saved as a political quid pro quo for the UAW’s support of Obama?

The spot concludes with a wink: “The only chapter we’re focused on is Chapter 1.”  Way to make a sly pun for one of the most serious bankruptcies ever.  And, it is a blatant lie; there are millions of dollars, teams of consultants and at least one surely qualified 31-year-old with no experience focused on Chapter 11.  Not even the oldest of the old school PR firms still advocate calling wrong right and right wrong.  No, mere words are not enough to change perception in the networked world.

Not just is the message wrong, but the medium is as well.  A big advertising spot to be “completely honest”…to be transparent?  It doesn’t work, not today, at least.  Open dialogue on the Web with the restructuring team, a visualization of all the moving pieces and parts of the failed company, internal timelines, mea culpae for the clusters that were the SSR, the HHR, the WTF? — that would be a step in the right direction.  After all, the American people do own the company.  Being “completely honest” means the right message and the right medium — and the right moment, too.  That GM launched this “campaign” (as opposed to a conversation and town halls with its new owners) on the day of its Chapter 11 filing shows just how much the company still believes in the old way of doing business.  Just buy the time…make the spot…and say it is “all new,” “better than ever” and “completely honest.”  I mean, that whole “American Revolution” thing worked just a couple of years ago, right?

It’s great that GM will focus on a few major brands — an increasingly important strategy for global players meaning to get the real value from their scale.  GM also needs to focus on a modern model for brand and portfolio management, including a real strategy for voice, messaging, media and timing in the digital age.  GM does have a Facebook page (so modern!) with a stunning 30 fan photos and a less-than-believable “info” statement for a company being “completely honest”: “A lot is happening at General Motors and we couldn’t be more excited.”  Really?   And there is GM’s new “content” site, which is an excellent step forward in online corporate press rooms, but little else.  None of this is social media, of course, which is about being right here, right now, always on, always transparent, always connected.

Being “completely honest” means being completely present and knowable and engaged, and that brings with it some vulnerability.  Guess what?  We already know you are vulnerable; we’ve seen the balance sheet. Worse, we’ve driven the cars.  Hiding and claiming strength where none exists is just sad and does nothing to rebuild trust.  Let’s start with admitting there’s a problem…then focus on the path to recovery, using the right tools.  IPG’s shops should be ashamed for giving such an old approach to such a damaged company.  Then again, they did help cause the problem; ad agencies haven’t been known for objective, strategic counsel for a reason.

Oh, and thanking the American people for saving you would have been a nice gesture out of the gate.  Don’t forget who actually paid for that “completely honest” spot.  Hubris by any other name stinks as much as it always has.


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