CONSUMER-MADE COMMERCIALS BLAST CHEVY

Online Contest Brings Barrage of Expletive-Filled Videos, Much Viral Publicity

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The deal: General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet asked consumers to create a commercial for the new Tahoe SUV as part of a tie-in with NBC’s “The Apprentice.”

The result: Thousands of negative ads created by SUV haters have only increased awareness for the full-sized truck at a time when sales for the vehicle are surging.



Despite nearly 3,000 invective-filled consumer-created commercials, Chevy says the Tahoe Web contest opened a dialogue.


Consumers are calling Chevrolet’s new Tahoe sport utility vehicle a gas guzzler, a vehicle that’s harming the environment and escalating global warming. And they’re saying all this in commercials that Chevy asked them to make.

It’s probably not what the automaker was looking for.

But that’s exactly what Chevy is getting in response to an online contest it launched March 13 after sponsoring a task in NBC’s reality show “The Apprentice.” In the episode, the show’s two competing teams had to create the most entertaining training event centered around the 2007 Chevy Tahoe for a group of Chevrolet marketing executives and dealers.

Following the episode, viewers were directed to www.chevyapprentice.com to participate in a contest and create a 30-second commercial using music and video clips provided by Chevy; the footage is made up of the same visuals -- the Tahoe perched on snow-capped mountains, rushing waterfalls and driving through forests and across deserts -- that can be found in the brand’s current TV ads. The contest ends April 10, after which five winners will be chosen by a boardroom of judges, continuing the tie-in with “The Apprentice.” They’ll be awarded trips and tickets to events.

21,000 submissions, 3,000 are negative

As of this week, the site had received 21,000 submissions, a Chevy spokesman said. Of those, an estimated 3,000 are negative. And unfortunately for Chevy, those are the ones that are generating the most attention.

With titles like “Global Warming” and "WWJD" (What Would Jesus Drive), the spots range in tone from damning (one is titled "2327" the number of soldiers killed in Iraq) to mocking ("How Big Is Yours?"). Consumers get to write and add their ad copy, which is superimposed over the visuals.

In one ad, the Tahoe is seen driving through the various landscapes, as the copy reads: “This SUV gets 12 miles per gallon. Releases tons of carbon every year that’ll stay in the atmosphere for a hundred years. Temperatures are rising. Polar icecaps are melting. Growing food is getting harder. Violent storms are increasing. Global warming is happening now. What will you tell your kids you drove? Chevy Tahoe. An American Revolution.”

Another ad says, “We paved the prairies, we deforested the hills, we strip-mined our mountains and sold ourselves for oil to bring you this beautiful machine.” Also touching on the oil issue, another ad says: “Our planet's oil is almost gone. You don't need G.P.S. to see where this road leads.” Meanwhile, others are more environmentally conscious: “Like this snowy wilderness? Better get your fill of it now. Then say hello to global warming.”

Others are more scurrilous: “If you live near [expletive] Superman, or on a Hoth-like ice planet, you should throw piles of money at this monstrosity! You don’t though. You live in Los Angeles, not on Mars. Your wife won’t [expeltive] you anymore. Wine won’t do it, crying doesn’t help. How did this happen? God it’s cold.”

You get the point.

The problem with user-generated content

Chevy’s effort raises cautionary questions for the growing trend of advertisers relying on consumers to produce advertising for a brand -- even if it only appears online. Marketers, including Converse, Chrysler Group, GM's Cadillac, Home Depot, L’Oreal, MasterCard, Sony Corp., Toyota Motor Sales USA and JetBlue have experimented with user-generated content.

But most of those companies filtered through the submissions before posting them. With the exception of removing ads that used profanity or defamed groups, Chevy did not ban any unflattering spots, giving consumers with an ax to grind the chance to vent. That was always part of the plan.

Chevrolet has remained on message, saying it anticipated getting critical submissions, only part of the price of playing in the online arena.

“We were fully comfortable going into this campaign,” said Mike Albano, a spokesman for Chevrolet. “We expected there to be some less-than-flattering responses and we were prepared to enter into that dialogue. Anytime you do this type of promotion, it’s a two-way dialogue with your customer. You may hear things you don’t like to hear.”

Chevy’s open-door policy may be paying off for the company. That’s because it turns out there’s an upside to negative ads: People are watching.

In the weeks since the online promotion launched, user-submitted spots have made the rounds to thousands via e-mail. Others have appeared everywhere online, from automotive, environmental, political or advertising-themed blogs to more general destinations like YouTube.com.

Driving traffice to Web site

All that is driving traffic to www.chevyapprentice.com, where visitors have been spending on average of 10 minutes on the site, which tells consumers about the Tahoe’s improvements over previous models, like its improved fuel economy and safety equipment, along with convenience features and versatility. “To have a consumer interact with your product for 10 minutes is phenomenal,” Mr. Albano said. “Most people won’t tolerate 15 seconds on TV before they reach for the remote.”

It’s the Web site, created by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., that made Chevy feel more comfortable about the promotion.

“Certainly we expected there would be creative types out there that would use this to send us their message,” Mr. Albano said. But many of the messages have focused on fuel economy -- one area that Chevy is only eager to talk about when it comes to the Tahoe. The company claims the truck is the first full-size vehicle to get more than 20 miles to the gallon.

“The good story for us is that Tahoe leads in fuel economy in its segment,” Mr. Albano said. “We’re coming from a position of strength. What we felt was that if we were going to be bold enough with this promotion, we were going to have to communicate with our customer. We’re only happy to have that dialogue.”

Whether any of the anti-SUV ads will make the final five is highly unlikely. According to the rules, judges from Chevrolet will evaluate submissions based on how well the spots communicate the Tahoe’s brand of being “more capable, more responsible and more refined.” That disqualifies many of the negative submissions.

Will contest hurt sales?

It’s still unclear whether the ads will hurt sales. If anything, the attention that’s been generated around the Tahoe will only help improve already strong numbers for the vehicle.

Despite a slump in the large-SUV segment, sales of the Tahoe are up 37% so far this year vs. last year. Sales rose 20% in March and surged 50% in January.

“We’re in a very cluttered world these days and you have to find ways to break through,” Mr. Albano said. “Sometimes they’re risky. You have to take risks.”


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Jean Halliday contributed to this report.

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