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The Marketing Machine

Through the past century, general Motors has been a pioneer in every area from jingles to sponsorships to product placement.
  • April 15 2011

Since its cars first started hitting the pavement over a century ago, General Motors has done its part to turbo-charge the ad industry. But that’s not the only reason the company has just won admittance into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

Sure, the corporation has commissioned advertising that has inspired other creatives. In fact, Madison Avenue-wise, GM has been attracting attention from early on: One of its classic ads dates all the way back to 1914—when the company debuted its Cadillac ad “The penalty of leadership.” In it, General Motors reflects on how lesser competitors try to tear down an industry’s top dog. “It was one of the most thoughtful, provocative ads of its time,” says Joel Ewanick, the company’s vp and global chief marketing officer. “It was very unusual for an auto manufacturer to talk about where a brand was going and its responsibility. It really set the tone for advertising for 30 or 40 years after that.”

GM has continued setting the pace in advertising. In 2002 the auto-maker captured the country’s attention—again, with a Cadillac campaign: Cadillac Breakthrough. In it, a commuter train rider looks out the window and sees images of sleek, modern Cadillacs racing by (while Led Zeppelin jams “Rock and Roll” in the background). Says Ewanick, “That was the campaign that really highlighted the distinctive styling for Cadillac. And that campaign really nailed it in terms of helping us grab the luxury market while displaying a distinct, unique personality for our cars. People still talk about it.”

And when Americans aren’t talking about GM ads, they’re singing along with them. The company, in fact, has been responsible for hit jingles going way back: The 1905 tune “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” says Ewanick, is “one of the first jingles ever.” And through the decades, the company has followed up with other commercial blockbusters like 1975’s “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet,” (“The song really became part of the American fabric,” notes Ewanick), and the other big Chevy hit, 1991’s “Like a Rock.”

But beyond commercials, ads, and jingles, GM has also made its mark in sponsorships. Over the airwaves, GM became the first automaker to sponsor a TV program: The Dinah Shore Show in 1951. Says Ewanick, “Dinah was terrific. She sung that song, ‘See the USA in your Chevrolet.’ She’d say, ‘Here’s the new Impala,’ and tell you about all the features. Perfect, perfect advertising integration.”

Seven years later, GM took on the sports arena, launching a sponsorship with the PGA. The Buick Open soon “spread to every other sport in the world—even to little league,” says Ewanick. “GM was way ahead of it’s time. As for the PGA, we’re backing golf this year with Cadillac.”

And after September 11th, 2001, GM went beyond its role of being a U.S. automobile manufacturer and took on the duty of being an American corporate citizen with its “Keep America Rolling” campaign. Recalls Ewanick, “After 9/11, America was paralyzed, and this campaign helped wake us up. This was one of those moments when Americans stood back and were grateful to General Motors for helping bring us back from a very tough time and helping get us back on track.”

The company continues benefitting from other marketing efforts—including product placement. GM has made its Chevy Camaro a hot ride, thanks to its starring roles in TV and movies. This season, the new TV hit Hawaii Five-O has done for the Camaro what Miami Vice did for the Ferrari. “There’s a lot of incredible buzz about the Camaro and how well integrated it is into the show,” says Ewanick. “We’re really getting a lot of traffic online and in our showrooms because of it.”

And in 2007, the monster hit movie Transformers also made Camaro—along with GM’s Pontiac Solstice and Hummer H2—big stars. “This movie in particular is one that lives on and on and on as people discover Transformers and become fans,” says Ewanick. “Plus, T3 comes out this summer and it will be a blockbuster for us.”