GM Turns a Corner

Imagine getting the brief from General Motors: Create a TV spot that acknowledges we’re in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, without using the words Chapter 11 or bankruptcy. Be transparent but not entirely clear. Show why this is the best thing that could have happened to us, other than it not happening. Don’t be too graphic — we’re not dead yet! — but don’t be too celebratory, either.

In other words, an impossible assignment. It’s also no-win: If you try to sound positive and confident, you come off as arrogant and clueless, the same guys that ran the thing into the ditch and are shamelessly asking for billions more in bailouts. At the same time, if you sound too apologetic, then your once-powerful brand comes off as weak, and that makes people — and potential car buyers — fearful.

And even if you strike just the right chord, critics and consumers can reply (in loco parentis GMis, which is what we are): “We own you! Now is not the time to spend our money on elaborate 60-second TV ads, even if they’re decent! Make some decent cars instead!”

Given all that, I think last week’s “Reinvention” spot from Deutsch/LA does an OK job. It fits all the parameters, so obviously it’s not a revolutionary piece of creative, and it does give off that generic corporate-manifesto vibe at times. (GE has a spot airing now that also opens with the sun coming over a city, backed by a gentle instrumental score. And how many times have we seen the raising of a house frame as a metaphor for rebirth?)

But the copy has its poetic moments, and some difficult truths are told. The voiceover opens with: “Let’s be completely honest. No company wants to go through this,” which at least acknowledges that what’s happening isn’t something the corporation would choose. Even “this” is used instead of the B-word.

There are only so many ways to say “reinvention,” which itself is a bizarre euphemism for bankruptcy. (Talk about denial! Plus, everyone knew it was coming, and it doesn’t seem to have affected sales.) The ad says GM “needs to start over,” which sounds like something a mom might say at a play date after a scrap over Hungry Hippos, not an admission of being $90 billion in debt. But it gets the copy moving to where it can make strong declarative statements, such as, “There was a time when eight different brands made sense. Not anymore. There was a time when our cost structure could compete worldwide. Not anymore.” The copy really hits its stride with: “So, here’s what the new GM is going to be: Fewer, stronger brands. Fewer, stronger models. Greater efficiencies. Better fuel economy. And new technologies.” That’s vigorous stuff.

The images — a mix of stock footage, stuff GM already had and a few new shots (like the giant fist sculpture, a homage to native son Joe Louis in Detroit) — look pretty and move well, even if some choices seem odd. “Nothing says rebirth of an American car company like people taking the subway and a guy running on one leg,” Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show on the night the ad broke.

I thought it was kind of cool that GM would recognize that the future is more about mass transportation. As for the runner, he’s sprinting on a high-tech artificial limb, which is supposed to convey resurrection after suffering, I guess. Microsoft’s new spot for its Bing search engine features a similar scene with a one-legged runner. Maybe it’s in the air to suggest sensitivity to Iraq veterans. Green shoots coming up from the ground are a bit heavy-handed in the metaphor department, but they look cool sped up, and the image still conveys hope. The hockey player with his face on the ground? A head scratcher. I would have given more time to the wind turbines and fuel cells.

And the phrase “Leaner, greener, faster, smarter” sounds too slick, like a 21st-century version of “Lighter, brighter, cleaner, whiter.”

The spot points to The site says all the right things but comes off as more corporate blah-blah. “I am personally putting a high priority on transparency,” says CEO Fritz Henderson. To which I want to answer, “Transparency? You can’t handle transparency!” But buried deep in the various clips is an interview with Lance Turner, a “battery systems engineer” on the Chevrolet Volt. He’s the guy who should be the springboard for the next series of ads: He talks about wanting GM cars to be “rock stars of energy storage.” Will the world want smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles from a company known for its big-ass, testosterone-fueled ones? Should GM just focus on deals like selling Hummers in China, where the big gas guzzlers are the embodiment of all that’s sexy in the West?

Company-wide, GM needs to focus on the same delicate balance of qualities it took to develop the long-awaited Volt’s lithium ion battery. Come up with the right combination of energy and power in the cars, and the ads will take care of themselves.