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Chevy's Crash, Burn

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This may sound peculiar coming from someone who has spent much of the last decade chiding marketers for not embracing digital media, but here goes: There is such a thing as going too far with new media experimentation.

Maybe this is what the folks who manage the Chevy Tahoe brand are really whispering behind the scenes too, after the SUV's ill-advised experiment with consumer-generated advertising ended up looking like a series of drive-by shootings, with the Tahoe's image in the crosshairs. Given its reputation among many consumers for being a gas-guzzling, environment-destroying monster, it was that message, instead of claims by Chevrolet that the 2007 Tahoe is more environmentally responsible than its competitors, that was ultimately heard.

If you didn't read stories about the debacle—including one that landed on the front of The New York Times business section (ouch!) two weeks ago—here's what happened. Chevrolet invited consumers in March to create ads for the 2007 Tahoe, at a special site tied into a product placement deal the car had on The Apprentice. Consumers could go to www.chevyapprentice.com and choose from a few dozen short video clips, pick from eight soundtracks and write their own copy, and, if they cared to, read a set of rather laborious guidelines illustrating how "the best commercials do several things exceptionally well" to help them win a contest.

So far, so good. But where the contest seems to have gone off-road, forgive the pun, is Chevy's decision to make the spots viral, and that's where the inevitable happened. Many of the viral commercials, instead of being paeans to the Tahoe, ended up being diatribes about how SUVs contribute to global warming. Of the three dozen or so Chevy Tahoe ads posted on the popular viral video site YouTube, almost all of them were anti-Tahoe ads.

But I had to see for myself before making the proverbial rush to judgment—how easy did Chevy make it to trash the Tahoe? So easy, it was astonishing. For the sake of this column, I decided to pose as part of the anti-Tahoe front, and here's what I created in roughly three minutes. Opting to depict the Tahoe in sand, ice and snow, and then sand again, and setting my ad to the most ominous-sounding of the eight soundtracks, I wrote the following: "The Tahoe chugs away, through sand, ice and snow. But pretty soon there will only be sand, after Tahoe destroys the environment." OK, Hal Riney would write a much better ad, but I just had to share my creation with two friends, who both got a chuckle out of my little experiment with consumer-generated media. So, Chevy, thanks for the laugh, but I'm still puzzled as to why you are putting such powerful tools in my hands, and helping me spread my little anti-SUV message. Consumers may indeed be in control, but that doesn't make it imperative, as an advertiser, to hand them the keys to the car—and gas it up while you're at it.

On General Motors' FastLane blog earlier this month, Chevy general manager Ed Peper explained Chevy's thinking, such as it is: "Early on we made the decision that if we were to hold this contest, in which we invite anyone to create an ad, in an open forum, that we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint. So, we adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate."

Under the circumstances, I suppose, adopting a position of openness and transparency is the right move. But who created the circumstances in the first place? Why, Chevy, of course. Somehow, it seems far more plausible that Chevy got into this fix because it became so engaged in appearing fashion-forward—a product placement deal on The Apprentice! consumer-generated media! viral communication!—that it simply lost sight of what might have been a good idea for this particular brand.

Some people's perceptions of SUVs, unless they happen to be hybrids, are so hardened at this point that trying to communicate Tahoe's message about being a more responsible version of the SUV isn't best left to consumers. Chevrolet wants consumers to know that the Chevy Tahoe both has better mileage (22 mpg/highway) and can run on ethanol. Maybe more nuanced pitches need to remain in the hands of the advertising experts.

However, Chevy maintains the program has worked as intended—by starting dialogue—and says the number of ads created went up by 50 percent to 30,000 after stories about the controversy first broke. "It was our view that the trucks are not for everybody," explained rep Melisa Tezanos.

There is a way to approach consumer-generated media in a more measured fashion, and that's the current contest by MasterCard, which, similarly, allows consumers to provide copy to already-shot visuals. (The winning spots will air later this year.) Unlike the Tahoe ads, however, MasterCard's effort doesn't have a viral component. But try as I might to find the blogosphere wailing about the company censoring the spots by not letting consumers openly share them, I couldn't find one. Sorry, Ed.

It's kind of strange how things have come full circle. Advertisers used to turn their backs on new media; now they often want to smother it in an overwhelming bear hug. Maybe the best approach to digital media for many advertisers right now is a firm handshake. Just because a new media form catches your eye doesn't obligate you to marry it.