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General Motors: An apology… and an opportunity?

Posted by 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.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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BURR
Guest
BURR

most people who actually claim to be ‘avid’ cyclists are weekend cartoppers.

noah
Guest
noah

If they want to develop a bike-friendly culture at GM, this backpedaling of theirs is a nice way to start!

Gabba-gabba
Guest
Gabba-gabba

some of my best friends are avid cyclists

Jim Labbe
Guest
Jim Labbe

Great coverage.

seeshellbike
Guest
seeshellbike

I remember Volkwagen and Trek teamed up a few years ago to promote both. I think you got a roof rack and Trek bicycle when you bought the Jetta model. GM just doesn’t get it.

Paul Johnson
Guest
Paul Johnson

Hopefully, this really is a learning moment, but I have my doubts based on a previous anti-transit ad suggesting only “freaks and weirdos” ride the bus. Irony: That ad featured a GM product: The GM Classic Transit.

Spiffy
Guest
Spiffy

they could focus their ads on bicycles…

“so much visibility you can watch be sure to see your friends on bikes from inside the comfy cabin”

or

“the bed of this truck can haul your friend’s bikes while you give them a ride across town”

Matt
Guest
Matt

Nice work Jonathan.

jeff
Guest
jeff

they could advertise the intergration of their products into the use of bicycles. Subaru’s been doing it for years.

Jerry_W
Guest
Jerry_W

Tom Henderson said:
“That’s not something we have an interest in, in making other modes of transportation look bad. We’re in the business of transportation.”

Actions speak louder than words from the PR guy, that is exactly the message in the ad that was just pulled. The chicks and “cool” students think you’re a loser when you ride a bike.

PR guys are paid to tell you what you want to hear, be it a lie, exaggeration or BS, the PR guy only has one life skill, being a convincing BS artist. Tom Henderson is a classic BS artist.

Thanks for the great coverage Jonathan.

casey
Guest
casey

Great job Jonathan. Getting right to the source- whether it imediately changes things or not, it’s good that they heard the voice. Thank you.

Elle
Guest
Elle

It is impressive to see the power bike Portland now has. People are listening. Use that bully pulpit, Jonathan! It makes me wistful for the days when mainstream journalism could follow a story and drive change. Bravo.

Marcus Griffith
Guest
Marcus Griffith

Regarding Henderson’s quote: “.. we are looking at other modes of transportation because not everybody wants to get around in a vehicle…’

Just for clarification, bikes are VEHICLES, just not motor-vehicles.

I agree not every one wants to get around in a vehicle; there are days where I don’t drive, ride a bus, bike, use a skateboard and just walk where I am going.

Dan O
Guest
Dan O

I understand the whole cooperate and collaborate thing, and I guess somebody’s got to do it, but it’s not my cup of tea. These guys might very well be the single *biggest* force behind the car culture.

fatmidwesternwhiteguy
Guest
fatmidwesternwhiteguy

I’m afraid this whole episode shows that GM is a long, long way from turning itself around. What is obvious to everyone else seems hidden from their understanding, and their 40 plus year slide into bankruptcy should be no surprise.

Paul Tay
Guest
Paul Tay

I would certainly buy a GM velomobile, in a NYC heartbeat!

jim
Guest
jim

These guys do need to take some sensitivity training classes. Obviously this ad was designed in Detroit where real men drive trucks, not in the “keep portland weird” portion of the country

Paul Johnson
Guest
Paul Johnson

Hugh Johnson
Here on Bike Portland you are likely to be labeled an elitist. : (

The irony of that on this board is not lost on me.

nom de plume
Guest
nom de plume

Contrast the GM add campaign with Toyota’s Venza ads. Bikes are prominently shown in them (although as an accessory to the car) and promoted as a positive part of a healthy lifestyle. Quite the opposite from GM. You can see the ad on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUGmcb3mhLM

Tourbiker
Guest

Old VW Bus used to be a great bike hauler, I think the new Chevy HHR could be one also. lots of people haul thier bikes to near town then ride in to save fuel & parking. Being able to lock a bike inside a vehicle is a great option, being able to easily secure it inside & out is even better.

99th Monkey
Guest
99th Monkey

Years ago, when GM had their primary customer and dealer support call center in Hillsboro, I was one of only 2 bicycle commuters of the 700 that worked there. One afternoon, while changing out of “business casual” work clothes into shorts and tank-top for my 10-mile ride home in the “bicycle lane” on 217 to Beaverton, a GM executive came in and asked my why I didn’t just hop in a car and ride home in a comfortable air-conditioned vehicle, that I could buy at employee discount that we got as sub-contractors. I told him I had not owed an automobile for over 10 years, instead had 5 bicycles and a trailer that I hauled my racing gear to Alpenrose with. “And they LET you work here”, was his reply!!! I then asked him, as I had already asked one of the design engineers, if they would ever change the exhaust on most vehicles, especially trucks to NOT exhaust outboard to the left side, blowing right at pedestrians and bicyclist, to the left side, instead. His reply was that it would cost too much to re-tool for the limited benefit that it would provide…..

99th Monkey
Guest
99th Monkey

oops.. correction, I meant to say “to NOT exhaust outboard to the right side,”

PaulCJr
Guest
PaulCJr

Come on people. Yes they messed up and I didn’t appreciate it, but lets also be real here too. There are time when we want to go places that we can’t unfortunately get to by bike or public transit. For example I like to travel to Boston from my home in Connecticut to ride the city and drink good coffee. The only choices I have to get there are taking the peter pan buses which are more than $100 to get to Boston, or head into NYC to take one of the Bolt type buses for around $30. Amtrak in Stamford or along the North East Corridor doesn’t allow bikes on the train. A trip to NYC takes almost two hours. My drive to Boston take almost 2-3 hours. So I drive to save time and money. What we should be saying is that over car use is bad! Destroying good walking cities or making cities less walkable in order to allow cars to go fast is bad. Using a car as one of your transportation tools, not the only one, isn’t bad. I use to also think driving at anytime was bad. But I guess being in my thirties now has toned done my total anti-car bias.

Dave
Guest
Dave

GM or any other car company except perhaps Subaru and Honda with the now-canceled Element, have yet to offer any products that are designed to seamlessly integrate with bike transportation and recreation lifestyle. All new vehicles should come with standard fittings for bike carrying. I am tired of bulbous P.O.S. suvs and wide noisy stinking trucks polluting my space. I reject most rec rides that require car trip to get to the start. GM is still trapped in the past. Bikes are the future for sustainable living…

The eBike Store
Guest

a bit of irony: I was on the Max yesterday and saw a GMC labelled bicycle. googled it:

http://www.walmart.com/ip/700C-GMC-Denali-Men-s-Road-Bike/12080282

Pete
Guest
Pete

Lincoln’s stark contrast to GM’s approach:
http://lincolnideaseries.com/craig.php