You can see this ad. Television viewers in the UK can’t. The Chevrolet Volt is sold in the UK as the Vauxhall Ampera, and its ad has been banned by the UK Advertising Standards Authority. It says the ad is misleading. The ad claims a 360-mile range. GM is a serial offender when it comes to alternate realities, and this ad is the latest installment.
“The real range of the electric batteries in the Vauxhall Ampera is a rather more modest 50 miles. And to go beyond that, it relies on help from a somewhat less green source – a petrol engine.”
The ad, created by long-time GM agency McCann Erickson, came complete with the usually hard to read and even harder to comprehend disclaimer:
“Comparison based on electric vehicles and extended range electric vehicles driven electrically at all times, even when an additional power source is generating electricity”.
The advertising standards bureau did not buy into it. Says the ruling:
“We considered that throughout the ad the emphasis was on the fact that the car was being driven electrically, and that most viewers would not understand that the car was in some circumstances being powered by electricity generated with a petrol engine. The ad promoted an innovative product which many viewers would not immediately understand and we therefore considered that it would need to explicitly state that the car had a petrol engine. Because it did not clearly explain how the vehicle worked in extended-range mode, we concluded that the ad was misleading.”
The ASA does not parse an ad through the eyes of a lawyer, or through the eyes of GM apologists and amateur spinmeisters. The ASA sees it through the eyes of the ad’s target, the average consumer. That consumer is being fooled. Using imagery of plugs and cables, and the slogan “Driving electricity further”, the ad pushes electric range, and that range simply isn’t 360 miles on pure electricity.
This isn’t the first time that GM got into hot water with its allegedly clever, but in truth ham-fisted public relations. Last March, the language police embedded in new and old media feigned outrage over a Chevy Volt ad that claims that the car can save “a crapload of money.” TTAC was less upset about the robust language, but challenged the claim. Even after the $7,500 credit, the Volt is overpriced. When Tony Posawatz was still line director of the Volt, he told Bloomberg in an interview that there is no such thing as a crapload of savings:
“The Volt’s cost of ownership matches the average car when including the $7,500 U.S. tax incentive and gasoline fuel savings.”
That remark clashed with the advertising claims, and possibly ended Tony’s career. In June, Posawatz left GM into early retirement, only to land at Fisker as its new CEO.
In 2010, then CEO Ed Whitacre claimed in an ad that GM paid back its “loan, in full, with interest, years ahead of schedule.” Even the Detroit News, by some regarded as the in-house organ of GM, had issues with the ad and said it “glosses over the reality.” Congressman Darrell Issa said the ad brought GM “dangerously close to committing fraud.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a deceptive advertising complaint with the FTC. GM stopped running the ad.
CEI also filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Treasury. The statutory period for a response to an FOI request is 20 days, Treasury took a year. After a review of the documents, the CEI says “that General Motors and the Obama administration coordinated their PR strategy regarding GM’s much criticized 2010 ad campaign, in which the car maker misleadingly claimed to have repaid all its government loans.”
In all three cases, the claims were technically true, but they created an untrue perception. The Vauxhall Ampera, a rebadged Chevrolet Volt that is sold in the rest of Europe as the Opel Ampera, technically has a 360 mile range on electricity, but only when the gasoline motor is running. The Volt technically saves a shitload of money, but only if you disregard the price of the car, and only if you don’t take it farther than the grocery store. GM technically repaid the $7 billion loan part of the government’s $50 billion investment, but forgets the $43 billion balance, and ignores that the equity part today translates into “an unrealized loss of $16.4 billion,” if Forbes is correct.
Perception is reality. These allegedly “clever” ads bank on the stupidity of the viewer. While technically true under a high powered magnifying glass, they attempt to create an alternate reality that is far from the truth. People don’t like it when they find out that they have been had.
As a former GM owner, I say: Don’t get smart with me, GM. Get real.