Whitacre May Be Old School, but He Out-Hyundais Hyundai

GM Chairman Delivers Straightforward Pitch to Consumers

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This just in: General Motors has some issues.

Bankruptcy; a federal bailout; recession; a history of corporate arrogance and cynicism; backlash from the shortsighted play on gas-guzzling SUVs; distant but persistent memories of crappy products; the negation of design improvement by mindless cost-cutting; the '70s and '80s undoing of divisional distinctiveness; obstinate and corrupt resistance to safety, fuel efficiency and quality-control; ruinously expensive sweetheart deals with the UAW and, lest we forget, mainly terrible advertising and marketing for decades and decades.

Title: May the Best Car Win
Marketer: General Motors
Agency: McCann Erickson, Birmingham, Mich.
Whitacre, out of grand vision or simply abject desperation, has out-Hyundai-ed Hyundai.
Among the four remaining divisions, only Cadillac has had anything to boast about in recent ad memory. The most memorable campaign GM has run in the past 25 years was 25 years ago.

Remember "The Heartbeat of America"? Catchy jingle. Huge media tonnage. And it might have worked, too, if it hadn't been so obviously, pitifully untrue. By 1980, Chevrolet had long since established itself as the vestigial organ of America. GM had taken one of the three most resonant, relevant brands in the history of American commerce (along with Coca-Cola and Marlboro), and reduced it to an also-ran -- if not actual laughingstock. Three words: Chevette. Citation. Lumina.

So, as we were saying, issues.

Luckily, here comes the new chairman, Edward Whitacre Jr., with a boast -- and an offer -- designed to turn it all around.

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"I'm Ed Whitacre, the chairman of General Motors," he says in his east Texas twang as he strides purposefully through GM's Jetsonian design studio (or facsimile thereof), a place bustling with handsome young people of many ethnicities inexplicably moving around and fondling various sections of pretend automobiles.

It's possible you recognize Whitacre as the man plucked out of AT&T retirement to be steward of the taxpayers' huge investment in America's worst-managed corporate leviathan. But for most viewers, he's just the latest white-haired rich guy trying to sell you a bill of goods. Yeah, they're thinking, this should be good.

But, you know, it kind of is.

"Before I started this job, I admit I had some doubts. Probably a lot like you. But I like what I found. I think you will too. Car for car, when compared to the competition, we win. Simple as that.

"I just know if you get into one of our cars you're going to like what you see. So we're putting our money where our mouth is."

This is where Whitacre, out of grand vision or simply abject desperation, out-Hyundai-ed Hyundai:

"Buy a new Chevy, Buick GMC or Cadillac and if you're not 100% happy, return it. We'll take it back. That's our new, 60-day satisfaction guarantee. And as always you'll get our 100,000-mile, five-year power-train warranty on every vehicle. That's how strongly we feel about our cars and how committed we are to you. So put us to the test. Put us up against anyone. And may the best car win."

Whoa. We don't know what Whitacre has to support the "car-for-car" superiority claim. We're pretty sure McCann Erickson just made it up. But we do know that there's nothing wrong with GM cars, and we certainly know how Hyundai changed the playing field twice: First by offering a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, then by offering to let new-car buyers off the hook if they get laid off. GM's offer ups that ante by at least one order of magnitude.

That there is a conversation starter, one that subsequent brand ads will surely continue. It also bespeaks a confidence in the product line that itself can change perceptions.

Or, because this is GM after all, maybe it's just another heartbreak for America: an insane risk attached to an outrageous lie.

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