Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on October 14th, 2011 at 12:12 pm
"We're in the business of transportation... we are looking at other modes of transportation because not everybody wants to get around in a vehicle and not everyone needs to own a car."
— Tom Henderson, GM Media Relations
Last night I got a phone call from General Motors' self-described "PR Guy" Tom Henderson (actual title is Manager, Cross Brand Communications and Media Relations). I had mentioned I wanted to talk with someone from GM about their "Stop pedaling... start driving" ad and Henderson was the guy who came forward.
Our conversation happened before Mark Degnan, Director of Local Advertising and Marketing for GM, posted a statement about the ad on the company's "Fast Lane" blog (which has since been unanimously panned by commenters).
During our chat, Henderson shared with me that he's an "avid cyclist" himself (mainly a mountain-biker) and that "It's not like we [GM] don't get it." "I love cycling and think it's a great lifestyle... And so do many here," he shared.
As for the ad, Henderson admitted that, in hindsight, it was "ill-conceived and poorly executed."
GM's hindsight was informed by hundreds of negative reactions to the ad via Twitter, GM's Facebook page, and on blog comments. "We definitely heard from the community... And the entire campaign is being re-evaluated. We've stopped all ads on college campuses."
Where did the idea come from?
"It was something born out of a lot of conversations we had with college students over two years. We asked them, what would it take to reach through and resonate with you guys and they started telling us about their plans and desires... When they get their first job, one of the things they want is a new car. That was the overriding message — get a decent job, get a decent car."
The notion of moving from bike to car was aspirational and the way we pulled that ad together, in hindsight, didn't convey that properly."
If they want a decent car, there are ways to do that without making fun of bicycling aren't there?
"I agree and I understand that. And like I say, hindsight is a good thing and a bad thing... You can see the things you've done wrong but at least you can learn from them... I think that just goes into the category of this was a mistake... something not well conceived or well executed."
I shared with Henderson that a lot of people (me included) have misgivings about GM's past; About their role in dismantling public transit in America and the infamous "creeps and weirdos" transit ad they ran (and then pulled after a similar public outcry) in 2003...
"That's not something we have an interest in, in making other modes of transportation look bad. We're in the business of transportation."
I then mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that GM might consider making bicycles someday. "I don't know if we're going to go there," replied Henderson, "but we are looking at other modes of transportation because not everybody wants to get around in a vehicle and not everyone needs to own a car."
What about the image of the woman being splashed that's still on the website (as of 11:45 am on Friday 10/14)? "That is coming down as well," he said. (UPDATE: It has been removed! Thanks Tom).
Beyond looking for some good PR, I urged Henderson to consider this valuable branding opportunity for GM. They can be the first U.S. automaker to show they understand there's more money to be made by appealing to the vast number of Americans who like to ride bikes — and drive cars — than there is in alienating them.
The way Americans move around — and our relationship with cars — is changing. The sooner GM gets in front of that curve, went my argument, the better position they'll be in to take advantage of it.
Toward the end of our chat, Henderson re-iterated that this entire situation has been a "learning moment" for the company.
Hopefully that's really the case.
GM has an opportunity right now, to show us that they truly are listening. And not just listening, but responding. This whole episode isn't about "cyclists" or "bike advocates" being "offended" (even though that's how the media spins it). This is about doing the right thing and being a responsible corporate citizen.
Will GM seize this moment to turn a lot of negative attention into a lasting positive? Or will they just go back to their old ways and think that an apology and a blog post is enough? We'll see. Stay tuned.