General Motors Death Watch 56: The Spin Starts Here

general motors death watch 56 the spin starts here

Last Thursday, GM's Vice President of Global Communications sat with the suits and outlined his plan to rescue The General's image from public crucifixion. The man in charge, Steve "Twisted Sister" Harris, had been lured out of semi-retirement from a PR firm specializing in "reputation challenging situations." Ironically, The McGinn Group's website lists GMAC and The US Department of Justice as customers (although the federal seal is too blurry to be sure exactly which federal agency spent our tax dollars burnishing its image). More to the point, the opening animation silently intones "Experience. Accountability. Judgement". Talk about foreshadowing…

Yup, GM's Judgement Day is on its way. Meanwhile, Twisted Sister wants American consumers to know what a great job General Motors has done, is doing and will do, bet your bottom dollar, tomorrow. We're talking high mileage vehicles, clean-running ethanol engines, JD empowerment, we-must-be-doing-something-right sales figures, that kind of thing. Like most people paid to spin straw into gold, Sister doesn't trust the media with this message. He prefers working with cappucino-fuelled creatives to fashion fabulously expensive TV, print, radio, direct mail and web-based campaigns– rather than sitting down with cynical journalists prone to going "off message" and arguing about silly things like facts.

Although GM recently trimmed $200m from its '06 ad budget, it will still spend $1.2b flogging its products. There's bound to be enough loose change down the back of the corporate sofa to subsidize Operation Love Me Tender. Besides, with all this press about plant closures, layoffs, billion dollar losses, a Presidential f-off and the "b-word", Sister's sledgehammer PR campaign seem a reasonable idea. Unless something's done to alter GM's tragic trajectory, consumers are heading straight for the 'you can't touch this' tipping point, where buying any GM product will seem like throwing money into a black hole. Why not sell potential customers a little automotive anti-gravity?

Simply put, the harder GM pushes the fact that they're doing well – or will do well, you know, eventually – the more people will believe they're headed for oblivion. GM's spinmeisters fail to understand the depth of consumer ill-will towards The General. For decades, millions of people spent their hard-earned cash on poorly made, unreliable and (come trade in) expensive GM vehicles. Their complaints were met with arrogance, deceit and indifference. These disgruntled customers told their friends, neighbors and co-workers about their misery and vowed "never again." In fact, the GM resentment bank is so full that any claim that "we're different; we've changed" will sound like a junkie's pleas for his twelfth chance.

Twisted Sister beware: it's American car buyers who are cynical about GM, not journalists. (As far as I can tell, the automotive press is desperate to see a GM turnaround.) So how do you convince deeply skeptical consumers that the new, new GM is worthy of their patronage? You sure as Hell don't launch a glossy ad campaign exhorting them to share your pride in a reborn American institution, to buy into GM's new spirit of honesty, resilience and determination. No, you start somewhere else: the only place where you have the slightest hope in Hell of changing public perceptions about General Motors. You start with the product.

The best promotional device in the world was, is and always will be a great product. Any PR or ad campaign touting GM's imminent recovery that isn't specifically and credibly tied to product excellence is doomed to failure. That's because the average customer doesn't care about the company that makes their car, any more than they care about the company that makes the electricity powering their home. They care about their car. If The General's products fail to live up to the automaker's promises of reliability, quality or style; if there's the tiniest gap between expectation and reality, all the money spent "selling" that promise will be wasted. And that's provided you can devise a way to get customers to drop their barge poles.

Sure, GM makes some great vehicles: the current Chevrolet Corvette, Cadillac CTS-V and um, whatever. But the vast majority of The General's vast product range simply isn't good enough to give Sister's band of brothers the rustoleum they need to save GM's tarnished image from corroding into dust. (You try and build a "This ain't the same old GM" around a Pontiac G6 or Saab 9-7X.) Of course, even if GM made Carreras, Camry's and F150's, it still wouldn't stop the company's slide into bankruptcy. Until The General sorts out its sky-high labor costs, trims its dealer network and ditches its moribund brands, they're a dead automaker spinning. On the other hand, if The General DID make great products– and ONLY great products– at least they'd have something to talk about in the meantime.

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