Curtain call for Oldsmobile

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Consider the plight of Oldsmobile.

The 103-year-old General Motors Corp. division launched its last new product-the redone 2002 Bravada sport utility-March 15 on CBS. But parent General Motors announced Dec. 12 Oldsmobile would be phased out, which could take anywhere from a year to three years.

"The business situation we're facing is unique. It's phaseout, not closeout," said Jim Vurpillat, brand manager of Bravada. Olds' demise will come faster if the brand can't sell its vehicles.

But so far, Olds' vehicles are selling-based on heavy discounting and a new warranty. The division sold 51,886 vehicles in the first two months of 2001, only 771 fewer vs. the same period a year ago, according to Automotive News.

Soon after the announcement, Oldsmobile started touting in TV spots a five-year/60,000-mile warranty, dubbed the "GM Protection Plan." "We found the extended protection plan helps people consider the product and forget any concerns they have," Mr. Vurpillat said.

Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, created a single 30-second spot for Bravada's national TV launch. The mainly TV push, estimated at $10 million, will get the heaviest play on syndicated cable during its three-week flight. The commercial will continue to air during CBS broadcasts of "March Madness" basketball coverage. Then the spot goes into rotation with two existing "buyer testimonial" spots.

Doing voiceover, Maurice Lamarche introduces Bravada as "a new beast on the road" as wild horses run alongside it. Verdi plays in the background. The new 270-horsepower, aluminum, inline, six-cylinder engine is "more powerful than Jeep Grand Cherokee," says Mr. Lamarche, who also mentions the warranty and states "built by Oldsmobile, backed by General Motors."

Oldsmobile, which started selling cars in 1897, was the first American carmaker to advertise, a spokesman said. Horses appeared in many early Olds ads.

The roughly 60 horses in the Bravada spot were filmed separately from the SUV's action, then made to look like a larger group via Site Effects, Venice, Calif., said Scott Smith, co-creative director on the account at Burnett.

It took Burnett four weeks to finish the spot from the time of client approval vs. the normal 12 weeks, said Charley Wickman, co-creative director at Burnett. That's because the commercial didn't have to undergo pre-testing by Diagnostic Research International, Los Angeles. Mr. Wickman said his team learned a lot during DRI testing of proposed creative presented just before GM's fateful Dec. 12 announcement. The work was for a shootout with Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Troy, Mich., for an Olds division branding assignment. The review was called off after GM's announcement.

The brand's phaseout some day could be the subject of a case study, said Randall Tallerico, who joined GM as Oldsmobile's advertising director in October after more than 20 years with WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Co.

"Having a divisional [ad] approach is the way to go," he said. During the agency shootout, consumers in focus groups were better able to grasp the division's five-vehicle lineup when an umbrella ad theme was used, he said.

Burnett's Mr. Wickman said, "We'd been toying with the idea of doing a divisional campaign for a long time, so we had done the [consumer] research for a long time."

But under GM's brand management system, every vehicle model is a brand, as is every vehicle division. In recent years, critics said Oldsmobile had confused buyers by trying to distance its own products from the divisional brand in ads. Until last year, the division didn't have full-line ads.

The Bravada starts at $32,400 for the two-wheel drive version. Mr. Vurpillat said this is the first time the SUV is available with two-wheel drive, which should help sales in warm climates. Roughly 75% of SUVs are sold with two-wheel drive.

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