DEAD GIVEAWAYS

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Pontiac and Oprah's G6 handout generated big buzz, but not sales

pontiac pulled off a watershed media stunt when it launched its G6 model, giving away 276 cars to shocked audience members during Oprah Winfrey's season opener last September.

So why are the vehicles gathering dust on dealers' lots?

Just over 27,000 G6s were sold in its first five months, a sluggish performance that was part of an overall drop for the brand. Pontiac sales slid nearly 23% during the first two months of 2005, to 55,841 units.

BREAKDOWN

Weighing those figures against the initial buzz that surrounded a move hailed as an ingenious alternative to a traditional advertising campaign, there seems to have been breakdown on the road from PR push to victory in the marketplace.

A look under the hood of the G6 launch shows that it was slowed by a host of problems, some part of the marketing program, some not. For one, the initial chatter could have been better sustained throughout the ensuing months in order to keep the model top of mind. But, observers said, not even an extension of that initial, intense media rush-worth about $20 million in advertising equivalency, by Pontiac's estimate-could overcome the General Motors brand's longstanding ailments or the G6's less-than-inspiring design.

From a product perspective, the brand wasn't that much distinguished by the public from the Grand Am. Wes Brown, a consultant with the consultancy Iceology, said the G6 doesn't stand out in a crowd or spark any emotion. Plus, he added, "Pontiac's brand image is weak. Pontiac isn't on people's shopping lists."

While the Oprah campaign seemed at first like a good way to lose those brand blahs, it ultimately suffered from a failure to sustain the buzz by not taking advantage of the enormous power Oprah has over consumers, particularly females. The marketer, some experts advised, should have better exploited the winners as a network of influencers or even tried to brand the Pontiac sedan an Oprah car along the lines of host's book club, which has been a fast-track to the bestseller list for pretty much every title included.

"What they went for is a lot like a brand that's going to spend $2.4 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl," said Rick Murray, exec VP- managing director at title at Edelman Diversified Services. "They put a lot of eggs in one basket and they got a lot of talk value out of it, but keeping the conversation going is what's important at this point."

Pontiac stands by its approach. "We continue to get positive feedback from consumers and dealers," said marketing director Mark-Hans Richer, who said the model achieved in six weeks a level of name recognition that would take one third of the 18-month average for most GM vehicles. He predicted improved G6 sales after the four-cylinder arrives in June and the convertible next January. But perhaps a stronger testament to Pontiac's belief in the giveaway technique was its decision to repeat it, giving away a Montana SV6 minivan each day in February on ABC's "Live with Regis and Kelly." "It was bigger than Oprah," Mr. Richer said, referring to online lead generations.

AMBIGUITY

With its $7 million outlay for the Oprah stunt, GM spent more than twice the going rate for a 30-second spot in this year's Super Bowl. It certainly got a publicity craze bigger than any generated by a spot in the big game. Practically overnight, G6 became part of the national consciousness. The sensation even caused the German automaker Volkswagen to ask its U.S. arm to kick around the idea of its own TV giveaway, though Amy Gushman, U.S. brand marketing manager said, "It's not probably something we'll ever do."

One observer suggested that with these giveaways there is ambiguity over which brand actually benefits from the televised act of gifting cool product: the talk-show host or the marketer. "What was the net takeaway of that event, from an emotional standpoint?" said Russ Meyer, exec director-strategic services at WPP Group's Landor Associates, San Francisco. "Was it the feeling that Pontiac was being generous in giving this away or was it Oprah being generous and giving cars away?"

But all of these questions could have been resolved with a snazzier car. "The easiest way to make some noise to create gotta-have products," said Mr. Brown, "then you don't need these kinds of promotions because the products create their own buzz."

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