GM’s Chairman of the Bored

After declaring bankruptcy, receiving a government bailout and welcoming an Obama-appointed chairman — not to mention much public soul-searching, teeth gnashing and vows of “Reinvention” — General Motors has decided to present a fresh face in its new TV ad.
Yup, the company is obviously focusing on that important, underserved market: gruff old white guys. In black undertaker suits. Who speak about their “vee-hicles.”
Talk about Groundhog Day — and not getting it.
I’m not here to beat up on Ed Whitacre, the government-appointed chairman, or his Texas twang, which he comes by honestly. He does a decent job of walking a convoluted path to deliver a tortured script.

But can we please establish one thing? Thirty-some years ago, Lee Iaccoca appeared in a campaign that saved Chrysler because it also introduced a great new product, K-Cars. By then, old Lee was a famous author closely associated with the company.
The setup has virtually no meaning anymore, except as parody. (See my review of the Sony PS3 campaign.)
But it has no meaning squared when delivered by a guy who’s been with GM a few months. And the fact that vice chairman, marketing and communications Bob Lutz decided not to use himself or CEO Fritz Henderson, but someone “untainted,” just shows how insular GM culture is. Nobody outside of Detroit is studying the roster of executives.
Does he think that viewers will look up and say, “Who is he? Oh right, yes, yes, yes. He’s that former AT&T executive who announced he knew nothing about cars. Let’s see what he has to say!”
But it gets worse — comically bad, in fact. On Whitacre’s circuitous journey to deliver the 60-day return guarantee offer-palooza, he passes through the GM design studio. It’s all white and futuristic looking. Actors, or extras, or androids are shown busily checking their computer screens or standing next to hoods and bumpers. It’s like a “Where’s Waldo?” for viewers: we get some tantalizing clues that GM might have some exiting new “vee-hicles” coming down the line, but we don’t get to see or hear about them! The cars are mere background props, put there for the all-important “chairman walk-by.”
“Do not look behind the curtain!” is what the spot seems to be saying. The chairman, who introduces himself without so much as a howdy-do (“I’m Ed Whitacre, the chairman of General Motors…”), has no interaction with any human being along the way. The thinking is out of some parallel universe. The spot should have been shot in the actual GM design studio and featured the actual people who are killing themselves to come up with better cars. That way, we might have some impetus to go to the dealer and try one out.
As it is, luring us to showrooms with the promise of being able to return our purchase in 60 days sounds like a lot of busy work for everybody.
I believe that when Ed says, “Put us up against anyone. And may the best car win,” he’s trying to sound sporting. But put that way, the offer just sounds characteristically arrogant and grumpy. Again, I want to scream at the screen, “What cars? Where are the cars?”
Also, wasn’t “Reinvention” supposed to be a one-off campaign until the company advertised the actual Buick, GMC and Chevy models that will reinvent the company? Weren’t they taking the GM badge off and allowing the individual brands to sell themselves? Whatever happened to that? This makes the earlier “Reinvention” spots seem like incredibly warm and human manifestations of 21st-century genius.
Oh, by the way, this is how Lutz defended the choice of using Whitacre to the press: “He’s tall, good-looking, has…impeccable white hair, has this nice soft, Texas drawl, limps a little bit when he walks, which sort of gives him that old cowboy look.”
That’s quite a ringing defense. Not to get too paranoid, but could they be setting Whitacre up to the take the fall? In this case, I’d say Lutz is the one whose whole strategy is blindingly tripped up.