GM rethinks the merits of ad pre-testing

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General Motors Corp. is studying whether to revamp its ad pre-testing process. Creatives at two of GM's agencies, who asked not to be named, said the proprietary process hamstrings their executions.

GM tested a pair of commercials for Volkswagen of America, by Havas Advertising's Arnold Worldwide, Boston, under GM's pre-testing system. According to one of the GM creatives and another creative exec, the VW commercials, already on the air, flunked under GM's process.

John Middlebrook, VP-general manager of GM's vehicle brand marketing and advertising, said he was unaware of GM testing the VW ads. He said GM's custom-designed system from Diagnostic Research International, or DRI, Los Angeles, "is one gate we go through" in advertising development. Consumers are shown the storyboards, which he said "keeps you from doing bad stuff."

Kim Kosak, ad director of Cadillac, said "DRI is not a check list" and there's no mandate to list product benefits. "You have to be very careful how you use it. It's more of a disaster check."

Christopher "CJ" Fraleigh is studying all GM's ad processes, including the current DRI system, Mr. Middlebrook said. Mr. Fraleigh, who reports to Mr. Middlebrook, joined the automaker in early January as executive director-corporate advertising and marketing from PepsiCo. Mr. Fraleigh has yet to give a public interview.

The reason Mr. Fraleigh is looking at possible changes to DRI is "we need to get great advertising," Ms. Kosak stated. "Across the board, our [Cadillac] work isn't where we want it to be." She said recent work from Bcom3 Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich., is very much improved with a new team of creatives that includes Robin Weeks, exec VP-chief creative officer and Martin Macdonald, senior VP-executive creative director on Cadillac.

GM started the DRI pre-testing under Mr. Fraleigh's predecessor, Phil Guarascio, in the mid-1990s, but pre-testing among other automakers is a mixed bag.

Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury does some pre-testing of ads to ensure commercials meet objectives, said Deborah Wahl, Mercury's marketing communications manager overseeing advertising.

Volkswagen of America doesn't pre-test ads. "If we want to say who we are, we need to be risky," said Frank Maguire, VP-sales and marketing at VW. He admitted sometimes the executions don't work, but on the other hand, the marketer wouldn't have produced some popular well-recalled spots.

He cited VW's 1997 "Da, da, da" Golf commercial, which some VW forces didn't want produced.

"Just because you test something doesn't make it bad creative," said Mark-Hans Richer, ad director of GM. "Testing is neutral. It's what you do with the results that matters."

Separately, GM will do more umbrella divisional ads vs. the individual ads by model brands that proliferated under the its 7-year-old brand management system. "We get more reach for our dollar" that way, said Mr. Middlebrook.

Buick is the latest example, kicking off the new umbrella ad tag. "It's all good," in a Century spot that broke April 16. The tag will appear in all Buick ads, replacing "Isn't it time for a real car," which bowed in a rare and short-lived divisional brand campaign in 1998. Cadillac's nostalgic "Moments" divisional brand spot broke last month.

Oldsmobile downplayed its divisional moniker in ads in 1997 and 1998, which dealers said confused buyers about where to buy the vehicles. "It didn't work," admitted GM's Bill Lovejoy, group VP-vehicle sales, service and marketing in North America.

And GM's Mike Grimaldi, VP-general manager of field sales, service and parts, said the automaker "lost key elements of how it attacked local markets" when it eliminated regional dealer ad groups in 1999. He said GM plans to gain back market share with the new version of local ad groups it is trying to convince dealers to join. So far, 70-plus groups have been formed.

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