GM tune-up

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General Motors Corp. is smartly taking its proprietary ad pre-testing system in for a tune-up. We can hear the cheers from agency creatives; many have long regarded pre-testing as a blanket that smothers good ideas before they ever reach the marketplace.

Pre-testing isn't going away at GM or at most other major advertisers that use some form of it. While GM's new director of corporate advertising and marketing, former PepsiCo executive Christopher "CJ" Fraleigh, is wise to pop open the hood on GM's ad testing system to see what's inside, the cost of major advertising campaigns is so significant marketing managers feel compelled by simple prudence to do some kind of pre-testing before going ahead. Nevertheless, if marketers and agencies are stuck with pre-testing, they must be aware of its dangers.

Peril No. 1 in any pre-testing system is the risk of getting bad advice from it. The current GM system, say people close to GM advertising, was asked to evaluate Volkswagen advertising-widely regarded as some of the best in the auto category today. The VW ads reportedly flunked. That should give any marketer at GM pause. GM has spent millions on ads but has not turned around its slide. No wonder its ad directors seem to feel the urgency to get great advertising. Looking at car sales (VW does not have significant light-truck sales), GM's Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile lost share last year; VW climbed to a 3.9 share from a 3.6 .

Peril No. 2 of ad testing, as dangerous as No. 1, is the human element: over reliance on ad testing results by advertising and brand managers. No testing system is foolproof. Marketing and advertising VPs and their agency partners are paid for the experience, insight and judgment they have about customers, their products and their advertising. Ad testing results are no substitute for those skills.

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