GM Sends Colombian Cabbies to School With Chevy University

Automaker Invites Taxi Drivers to Participate in Free Program That Includes English Lessons and Basic Business Planning

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As General Motors Co. begins an advertising blitz for Chevrolet in the U.S. by new agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners that has caused heated debate, a little-noticed effort is underway in Colombia to educate cab drivers, many of whom drive Chevys, by inviting them to enroll in the Chevrolet University for Taxi Drivers in Bogota.

The free program includes classes and training that taxi drivers find useful, from English lessons to helping them talk to passengers who are foreign tourists to basic business planning. After attending five hours of classes a week for six months, graduates receive a diploma as "technicians in the administration of individual passenger services." The classes are supplemented by a 30-minute weekly program on radio station RCN that reinforces the curriculum and can be listened to while drivers are in their cabs.

About 20% of Colombia's estimated 100,000 taxi drivers -- half of them in capital city Bogota -- drive Chevys, but the free university is open to all cab drivers, regardless of what car they drive. Classes started in July with about 2,500 students, and the goal is to reach 4,500 by the end of the year.

An ad campaign by Sancho BBDO highlights that the school is free to attend and has a flexible schedule. The campaign uses mostly traditional media, because cab drivers, an agency spokeswoman said, "are not really digitally oriented people." Ads run in print and outdoor media, and on the internal radio system taxi drivers use to communicate with their base station. The Chevrolet University is on Facebook, where it has 2,670 friends and lively posts ranging from messages of support and questions about how to enroll to videos of taxi-driver students in a classroom learning English by singing the Queen anthem "We Are the Champions" together.

"Our aim is to provide educational tools to those people that [have] no other choice but to start up with this business due to the lack of opportunities," said Andres Norato, Sancho BBDO's creative director.

Unlike some other Latin American countries (taxi drivers in Argentina or Uruguay, for instance, are often well educated but drive cabs due to high unemployment rates), Colombian taxi drivers often have little formal education. Some of the posts on the Facebook page are from the children of taxi drivers asking if their fathers have enough schooling to be able to attend Chevrolet University.

Although the automaker is clearly hoping to sell more cars to Colombia's taxi drivers, Chevrolet University is part of the company's broader Chevrolet Foundation social-responsibility program.

Colombia's car market is booming, with sales up 25% over last year to a projected 230,000 vehicles forecast to be sold in 2010. Chevrolet has a 36% share of the market.

Like some other Latin American markets, Bogota tries to reduce traffic congestion by mandating that cars stay off the road one day a week during peak traffic hours. The day usually corresponds to the last digit of the license-plate number, and rotates every year. One of Chevrolet University's suggestions to its students is to attend classes on their dia pico y placa, meaning the day they can't work because it's their designated day not to drive.

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