Can a preachy, plagiaristic new ad campaign help GM sell more electric lemons?

How everyone except Government Motors sees the Chevy Volt

Imagine you’re Joel Ewanick, GM’s global marketing chief, and you’ve got a problem.

You have a subcompact car that, even with a $7,500 government subsidy, sells for the price of a luxury sedan.

It has severly limited range. According to your own company’s director of electric vehicles and batteries, it would take four weeks to drive this subcompact from Detroit to Florida. Which, he admits, is one whole week longer than it would’ve taken to make the trip by bike.

Its sales target for last year was less than 1% of your best selling model’s, but it missed even that unambitious goal by 24%.

Your dealerships from New York to California are refusing deliveries.

Oh, and the car’s best known for catching fire.

So what do you do?

Anything but what Government Motors is doing to try to sell its Chevy Volts this year.


GM is launching a new ad campaign, comprising a new :30 television spot and print advertising in the form of a big-space open letter from CEO Dan Akerson.

Among other claims, he calls the Volt “a technological ‘moon shot.'” Well, maybe, in that both are the products of massive government subsidy and influence. But in terms of performance on the road and in the marketplace, the moon shot it most resembles is Apollo 13 (which, you may recall, didn’t get there and nearly killed its crew).

Perfectly safe, perfectly safe, perfectly safe…

From Akerson on down, GM management is claiming that all those pesky news stories about fires breaking out in Volts are, you shoulod pardon the expression, smoke. That being the case, why did they:

  • Offer to buy back Volts?
  • Offer free loaners?
  • Modify their battery packs?
  • Add a dashboard light to warn drivers when batteries start to overheat?

Education = desperation

The open-letter advertising is an attempt to educate all those ignorant consumers out there to believe Government Motors instead of their own lying eyes. Like most “educational” advertising, it won’t work. Consumer perceptions are realities that advertisers have to live with, not beat their heads against the wall trying to change.

Plagiarizing Chrysler

When the new Volt commercial debuts on Fox News and spreads to other networks, it may sound kinda familiar. Because by the strangest coincidence, it bears an uncanny resemblance (except in length) to last year’s two-minute Chrysler Super Bowl spot.

Chrysler used Eminem as voice-over, Volt uses Tim Allen. Chrysler showed one of their cars driving around what’s left of downtown Detroit, while the Chevy spot shows an assembly line of partially assembled Volts moving through Hamtramck, a small city surrounded by Detroit.

Like Chrysler, Volt treats coming from the dysfunctional, bankrupt, imploding “heart of Detroit” as some kind of huge consumer benefit. And, like Chrysler, it doesn’t say much about the product itself — only that it’s “extended-range” (Detroit to Florida in 28 days?) and “electric.”

The commercial does have one moment of unwitting candor when the voice-over says, “This is the car America had to build.” Sure, with the Obama administration holding a figurative gun to GM’s head during the 2009 Chapter 11 bailout.

False hopes?

Chevy spokesman Rob Peterson told Advertising Age, “We expect to see sales pick up.” But since a significant (but undisclosed) portion of last year’s 7,671 Volts sold (vs. a 10,000-car target) were to government fleets, and since neither cities nor the feds buy new fleets every year, it’s hard to see where that pickup will come from.

It’s even harder to see how this meretricious and imitative campaign will help.

If the Richmond metro area’s share of Volts bought equals its share of the U.S. Population (0.4%), that means that some 30.4 of the “cars America had to build” are buzzing up and down Broad Street, Midlothian Turnpike, the Powhite and I-64. In the year ahead, don’t expect to see lots more of them.