I think it’s fair to say that for decades General Motors has been fairly widely perceived as an ineptly-managed, money-losing manufacturer of unattractive, poorly-performing vehicles. Moreover, most of its executives–from Roger Smith (memorialized in “Roger and Me”) through Rick Wagoner (memorialized not only for taking a private jet to the 2008 congressional hearings but for being so bad at his job that the President of the United States effectively fired him)–have come across as being woefully out-of-touch with the desires and morals of the American consumer. If any company is in dire need of an image makeover, it’s GM.
The good news is that–thanks largely to the legendary and recently-retired Bob Lutz–the designs and quality of their vehicles are greatly improved. The bad news is that sales haven’t responded as positively as had been hoped. And I think one big reason is that the company is doing a lousy job of telling its story to the public.
What’s worse, their latest TV commercial is a serious step backward. The first problem is that the star of the commercial isn’t their new technology or stylish new designs, but Chairman Ed Whitacre. While the jury is still out on the job he’s doing leading GM out of bankruptcy, the jury is in on the charge that he reinforces every possible negative stereotype about GM. And the verdict is: “Guilty!”
If GM’s message is that it’s transformed itself into a hip, exciting, state-of-the-art innovator, it couldn’t have picked a worse spokesman than a largely unknown 68-year-old in a Brooks Brothers suit and a monotonous Texas drawl. In 1981, Lee Iacocca was the exact right person to star in Chrysler commercials; Chrysler’s stability was very much in question, and car industry legend Iacocca gave the company instant credibility. In 2010, Ed Whitacre could be the exact wrong person to star in GM commercials; America knows little about him, other than that he looks and sounds like just another out-of-touch GM executive.
And what makes the situation dramatically worse is the revelation that Mr. Whitacre’s boasting about GM’s repaying its government loan is misleading at best and dishonest at worst. For Mr. Whitacre to bless–let alone star in–this commercial raises huge doubts about both his judgment and his ethics. So at a time when GM desperately needs to rebuild its long-eroding credibility, this ad could–and perhaps should–send GM’s brand equity plummeting to an all-time low.
GM founder Alfred Sloan once infamously said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” If that’s true, then I think I speak for all Americans when I say that Mr. Whitacre needs to remove himself from GM commercials, and maybe from its executive suite as well.