GM: Viral Advertising Gone Awry?

GM invited people to make their own Chevy Tahoe TV ads over on Lots of the ads are anti-Chevy, anti-SUV. Really, this raises a number of questions like "does GM understand viral marketing?" and "just because it's viral, does it mean it's good?" and "how much should you know about your customers before you go viral?"

I get why companies blog to create customer connections, to share, to improve their brand, to gain customer insight. But when you decide to do something viral and you hype it, like GM did, doesn't it escalate the risk? Especially when you are not just asking the audience to interpret and share your marketing but asking them to create your marketing. When you have an extremely loyal following and a not particularly controversial product, you can pull this off. Apple could have done this with the iPod. Chevy with the Tahoe? Hmm, not so much in my opinion.

I don't buy into the concept that all attention is good attention. That's a bunch of fooey (or is it hooey...whatever) in my opinion. Frankly, you can put something out there and allow the market to do with it what it wants. But that doesn't necessarily make it good.  The question isn't whether people are talking about it, it's what they are saying about it. Really, since the negative ads are the ones getting the attention. For all it's viral buzziness, do these ads change your perception of GM positively and/or make you want to buy a Tahoe? What really is GM trying to get across? That they are transparent? Then show me your people and let me have real conversations with them. That they are innovative? Do I care whether they are innovative with marketing? Wouldn't I rather see innovation in their products?

It's not just the question of whether to do viral marketing, but how you do it and how much you know your audience. I just see this is an opportunity for people outside GMs target audience (look at the prizes for the contest and tell me who you think their target audience is) to have a little fun at the expense of their brand. That may be all fine and good online when you aren't pouring huge marketing dollars into an effort to drive traffic to the people making fun of your brand, but it looks like GM is. I'm not saying you always have to have control of your message (you know me better than that), just to mitigate your risks by understanding the audience of your marketing efforts and when you don't know (did I just say that? why would you do marketing without knowing?) maybe consider a viral opportunity where the company creates the core message. And when the market is critical of what you are doing as a company, get out there and talk about it and what you could have done better.

I'm still a little lost as to what GM expected this initiative to do for their brand. Some of you may see this differently, so please share because this is all just my opinion. I'm all for viral marketing when there's a point and it's done well. I'm just not seeing that here.

Of course, this is all from someone who still insists they don't need 4-wheel drive (and that is why I don't have it).



Comments (30)

  1. Jeff Parker says:

    Well I totally agree with you. This is not something somone like GM can pull off very well. The reputation of the GM is not very good anymore. In fact I own a GM 4WD, now I do need 4WD because where I live getting several feet of snow in the winter is the norm. Also this last december there was only 3 days it didn’t snow. While I agree summer is pretty much a waste so I just leave in in 2WD then. However the quality of my GM vehicle is another story. The warranty ran out last year and in this year alone I have put over $7000 of my own money back in, this is beyond things like brakes and tires which I consider normal maintenance. Oh yeah it is not even 70k miles yet.

    So when I see them spending a fortune on wacky advertising and I see it blow up in their face makes me feel both good and sad. Sad because I know other people with GM vehicles and very few have anything good to say about the quality anymore I wish they would spend the money and improve the product not only quality but some better MPG as well. And well I feel good because I think they are getting what they deserve. I am already have the mindset and I know for sure when I go out shopping for a car and it will be soon, it won’t be another GM product. An example of this is, I have never met someone with the same vehicle as me that has not had to replace the fuel pump at 50-60k miles. Not a single one. Some get it under warranty some do not. There is obviously something wrong with them, they know it, either recall it or remburse those that already repaired it. Things like that would keep me a customer not some clever marketing.

    While I have had other cars, a majority of them have been GM and they lasted for years, but now when I can call up the local Good Wrench guy and tell him I need a tow truck he can tell me exact what is wrong over the phone just by the miles and the description of what happened and he has never been wrong either. I think they really need to spend some time looking at quality. I guess to me what good is attracting new customers if you can not retain the old ones anymore.

    Sorry for ranting though just GM trucks are a very sore spot for me and I own one.

  2. Heather,

    While I agree it’s nice to have people talk highly about your product, they won’t always do so.

    The key thing then becomes how you deal with it. Do you ignore the criticism, acknowledge it, learn from it, try to squash it.

    Where GM scores a perfect 10 is in how it reacted to the negative ads. In that sense, they turned a bad situation into a good one.

    They got a huge amount of good press and look like a trustworthy company. That’s no small thing that, trust.

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    Dominic-seriously? I don’t see that. Definitely feel to point us toward anything you are seeing that makes you think GM is reacting well to the negative ads. All I have heard is that they are slow to react. I’m not getting the good press, trustworthy company vibe. But if you are seeing something we arne’t definitely share!

    Also, bad press is one thing but bad press you invited via your own marketing campaign is something else. But still, I’m willing to be convinced that they reacted well with some kind of proof ; )

  4. Deb says:

    I agree, Heather.  While it could stem from any number of different issues, I wonder if there is a disconnect between the public perception and what GM *thinks* people think of them.

    There is no way anyone with a realistic view of how GM is viewed in regards to quality, innovation, and so on, would have approved such a campaign.  Unless the plan all along was to expect the negativity and react and respond quickly and appropriately.  Then, well, maybe.

    I think you may have hit the nail on the head in talking about innovation in marketing.  Maybe there is a disconnect between marketing and what is actually going on with the company.    

    Then again, I’m just playing arm-chair quarterback.

    All the best!


  5. Um, did you follow the link on my name?

  6. Rob L says:

    Subaru did this last year with their new SUV, the Tribeca.. From all accounts this went very well for them, lots of people entered some pretty fun adds, one ended up being chosen and actually used for their on-air ad.  That said, Subaru seemingly has some better fans than GM apparently..

  7. * Its awesome that a company as huge as GM would try something so new.

    * If Apple did this for the iPod, they would get the exact same results.  The iPod isn’t a perfect product by any means (remember the class action lawsuit?).

    * Maybe this can be filed under: There is no such thing as bad publicity.

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    Deb-me too…armchair quarterback is fun ; )

    Dominic-I did and I still don’t know what GM *did* to react well. We seem to just be seeing things differently.

    Rob L-I’ll have to check out the Subaru campaign. Definitely sounds like how GM may have wanted theirs to go.

    Adam- 1) new does not necessarily mean good 2) APple has a loyal following that some describe as cult-like…GM doesn’t 3) There IS such a thing as bad publicity. Sorry, disagree with you on all 3 ; )

  9. Heather,

    The negative ads are irrelevant. They did not hurt the brand one bit. They did not say anything that people didn’t already think or know.

    In an environment where most Americans are worried about the environment and climate change, GM just continuing to produce vehicles like the Tahoe and pretending that there is no issue with this is much more damaging than what has happened.

    What has happened is that the company has signalled to all that it understand that there are issues. It knows that some people don’t like what it is doing. It is listening. It respects their perspective.

    This starts the conversation.

    Did you notice how in all the coverage of this in the media, there was very little attention paid to the issues the detractors raised, such as the vehicle’s gas consumption or quality?

    The focus was very much on the fact that there were negative ads, but that Chevy was not going to censor them, except if they were sexually or otherwise offensive.

    To most people reading the company’s reaction, this signals a company that can be trusted. It was extremely clear and simple.

    I agree with comments that GM is challenged by the perception that it is a stody, lumbering, unresponsive monolith that makes cars of poor quality.

    But in this instance, it has demonstrated with its reaction to the negative ads that perhaps part of that perception is false.

    That’s a huge step forward for GM. And it cost them nothing. Didn’t hurt the Tahoe any more than it was going to be hurt anyway.

  10. Really? You dont think that GM has a cult following too? Albeit not as strong in the SUV category as in the ‘classics’ category.

    But, regardless of the existance of the cult… there will always be the anti-cult.  Yes, there are still PC-bigots… people who refuse to purchase Apple products.  Just like there are Mac-bigots who buy only Apple products.  Do you think a guy who drives a Chevy truck will switch to a Ford?

    Anyways… I was mostly just playing devils advocate.  Here is what I really think.

    GM (and all american automakers) are in a real bind right now.  They spent the last 20 years making SUVs bigger and "better."  Now gas prices are spiking (again), and they’ve been caught with their heads in their proverbial "out"-holes.  Instead of completely changing the companies direction at the cost of (warning, arbitrary number) $750 million… its easier and more cost effective (in the short- to medium-run) to just have a $250 million ad campaign.

    (I feel guilty for reading/commenting on blogs at work so I’m writing fast… hopefully what I wrote make sense. 🙂

  11. HeatherLeigh says:

    Dominic-we’ll have to agree to disagree on the impact to their brand. I see not pulling the ads as a needed reaction to save face but financing and running the campaign in the first place was ill-advised. Just my personal opinion.

    Adam-I do think people will switch brands. Let’s see, what are the cars I’ve owned in my life: volkwagen, chevy, BMW, lexus, Toyota. Yeah, people will switch brands (I know that Toyota and Lexus are essentially the same company). I think running an ad campaign is one thing if it’s good and improves the brand…I just don’t see this campaign accomplishing that. I don’t have anything against their products but this campaign does make them look a little clueless when it comes to viral marketing. I’m cool with people disagreeing with me…i’m just representing one person’s opinion: mine ; )

  12. oh, sorry… I wasn’t referring to just this singular ad campaign.  I was thinking more generally.

    My dad and I had a similar discussion about SUVs/Big cars about a month ago.  Back in the 70s there was the ‘oil crisis’ (I can’t really speak from experience, b/c I wouldn’t be born until the 80s), but American car companies were still pushing their boats down the throats of US consumers.  This gave the japanese auto makers their "in".  My parents bought some little Toyota or something, and were able to afford the car payments because of what they saved in paying for gas.  

    Basically, I’m just flabbergasted that American car makers are going to do it _again_.  They keep pushing these huge cars down our throats… but thats not really a sustainable strategy.

    Time to go bask in some Seattle sun…

  13. HeatherLeigh says:

    Adam-I agree with you. I was alive for the oil crisis and remember it on the news. I wasn’t driving age, but I still remember it. There might be a strong following for vintage chevy stuff but the problem for GM is that the love doesn’t extend to their current products and it isn’t driving significant revenue for them (since the market for vintage is mostly resellers, right?). There may be some following somewhere but I don’t really think it’s "cult-like" in the way that this kind of campaign would work well. I imagine that they expected a bunch of "I (heart) my Chevy truck" ads.

    Four years ago I went car shopping. I had a Lexus and the dog plus the leather seats were not a good match. I needed something big enough to hold Jonas and make trips to the Home Depot. I shopped around and ended up buying a Rav 4 specifically because it was built on a car chassis…it effectively IS a car but with an interior like an SUV. Best part, it gets great gas mileage. My commute to work is minimal (just a couple of miles) and I work from home more often than not, but I feel good about driving my Rav 4. I plan to drive it until it dies (it’s ugly but I love it) and then my next car will be a hybrid because I can’t think of a good reason why not.

    I have to admit that I HATE the big-big-big SUVs and seeing someone drive a Hummer or an Escalade makes me angry (sorry, it’s true…I always have to get a look at the driver….nosey me!).  My team practically applauded a co-worker when he traded in his Escalade for a Subaru. I’m not an activist by any means (so I am not willing to write off the negative ads the way that Dominic has). I thought this way before, now I’m associating it directly with the GM brand. And now I am also wondering what their marketing department was thinking. And now I am sharing with all my blog readers why I don’t drive a "big car".

    Anyway, back to your point. Automakers will stop making them when people stop buying them. I’m not trying to pass judgement on people (well, the people taking up 2 parking spaces with their huge SUVs while we have a parking space shortage at our building…I reserve the right to pass judgement on them…hee!). I just think the negative ads are highlighting a significant issue for the makers of SUVs that, from a business perspective, they shouldn’t provide a platform for. We all make our own decisions and people react to advertising.

  14. Paul says:

    GM’s strategy is classic big company non-thinking.  Or over-thinking.  At best, it creates a worthless TV ad campaign that is inconsistent with the brand and its market position.  At worst, it is colossal failure of marketing judgment, stupid brand management, idiotic segment targeting, inappropriate use of technology, and emblematic of a "put a bandaid on it" (throw money at the problem) mentality.

    Let’s dissect it.

    Why would GM marketers do such a thing?  Because their product management has an internal rather than an external perspective.  They have line capacity and want to keep the factories humming.  The low-cost rapid fix is to try to extend the existing brand into other segments and then create ads that "position" the product for that segment to create market pull at the dealers.  The customer (external) perspective would be to create a brand with qualities that satisfies the needs of and appeals to a different psychographic.  How do I know this is what they’re doing?  Because the choice of marketing tactics and the imagery suggest that they are trying to sell to a younger, more affluent, better-educated sophisticated and modern values-based buyer.  This does not describe what the Chevy brand traditionally stands for, nor does it reflect the type of consumer likely to buy a Tahoe.

    re: Brand Management.

    A brand is supposed to stand for something.  Even non-marketers have probably heard of the idea of a "brand promise".  In the 1930s, GM pioneered the idea of designing car brands with unique identities targeted at different buying segments.  Chevy was the basic value-oriented family transportation model.

    Unfortunately, by the late 60s, GM got into brand extension in a big way, trying to have a car that would satisfy every buyer’s needs in every model lineup.  Their aim was operational – to reduce costs and leverage investments across the largest number of buyers.  The result was brand dilution, and a sea of look-alike cars that you can’t tell apart even when you’re standing beside them.  (I remember as a kid, we could identify the make and model of every car on the road from its profile a couple of blocks away.  I defy anyone to do that with GM cars today.)  And, the inevitable long-term result has been loss of market share, cost focus leading to customer indifference and severe quality problems (they’ve largely been fixed now because of the crisis the company finds itself trying to stave off).

    The only brand GM sells today that has begun a resurrection is Cadillac (discounting Hummer, which is a newer acquisition that GM hasn’t had time to ruin yet).  Whether you like their cars or not, they are finally producing an American luxury performance car with a consistent styling and image that appeals to a very specific kind of buyer.  They are immediately recognizable as Cadillacs, and stand out.  But, I digress.

    Ask yourself, if you were an upscale late 30-something or early 40-something executive with a young family, environment-conscious, well-educated, media-savvy, computer and internet literate, tending towards liberal politics, would you plonk down the big bucks for an aspirational higher-end Chevy Tahoe.  No way.  Not in a million years.  Chevy is the downscale brand, and the Tahoe doesn’t fit with any of your values or aspirations.  But the tactics chosen are clearly targeting that segment, with the inevitable result that they react with all their media-savvy and computer literacy by creating pseudo-ad parodies mocking the brand.

    Maybe a slightly younger Suzy soccer-mom, Joe sixpack family – say a coal miner or a factory worker — would be interested in a Chevy Tahoe, but do they spend their discretionary dollars helicoptering their vehicles to the tops of snow-capped mountains (OK, that’s a bit extreme, but do they even go to those places?).  No.  And, they can’t afford the higher-end Tahoe anyway, but the brand dilution suggests to them that maybe they won’t be able to buy it and it may not meet their needs after all.

    Another by-the-way: There has been lots of talk here and in the parody ads about whether Tahoe is an earth-raping monster in contrast with the scenery the ads portray.  In fact, if you have a lot of people to transport, have a small car-buying budget, and don’t use it as a one or two-person car, it may well be both cost-effective and the most environment-friendly solution for your needs.  Would you rather they drove 3 smaller cars everywhere to transport the whole family + sports gear + dog?  The problem is that everyone reacts from their own perspective, especially if you feel the ads are targeting you.  (e.g. "I’m a single 35 year old female, and I want a vehicle that shows my values and fun personality, yet which treats me to the creature comforts my business success entitles me to."  That car most certainly will not be a Chevy Tahoe.)

    I guess that covers both the dismal brand management and the idiotic segment marketing.  Now to tactics.

    re: Inappropriate use of technology.  

    Besides the fact that Joe Sixpack is unlikely to go online and create an ad using Chevy’s uninspired and brand-diluting imagery because he is in the wrong segment to do those things, there is a bigger problem that led to the negative ad-making crisis.  Namely, GM’s notion that they could "re-position" the brand, and make it cool and aspirational through the use of the Internet / multimedia experience.  That is just plain dumb.  The Tahoe occupies a position in your mind of low-cost, probably low quality, hulking dinosaur-of-the-road.  That’s OK (sort of) if you’re in the market for a value-oriented big family vehicle.  But, you can’t re-position it no matter how much money you spend, as a cool, must-have, trend-setting sophisticated modern vehicle for the above mentioned 35-year old female.  If you think you can, then you fundamentally don’t understand positioning.

    Heather, you have had many posts discussing authenticity in marketing.  Brand management and effective positioning strategies are at their core about authenticity.  Is it authentic to put a Chevy Tahoe on top of a snow-capped mountain?  No.  In fact, what that imagery suggests is the number 1 negative issue that people have with this vehicle — low mileage, environment destroying, road hogging, oil-crisis exacerbating piece of grandpa technology.  So, the media savvy, computer literate, environmentally conscious liberal market segment this strategy targets did the only thing you’d expect them to.  Create ads that express the negative side of Tahoe’s market position.

    The correct strategy here is to either create a brand specifically for the segment you are targeting and/or retire the older brand if it no longer appeals to any other segment.  You cannot and should not try to re-position a brand by trying to fool customers about what a brand stands for, or co-opting some target audience by getting them to do something they might consider fun.  Unless the brand position matches what those buyers want, and the tactics and promotional strategy match the brand characteristics, you will get exactly what GM got.  This explains somewhat why a similar tactic would work for Suburu, but not Chevy.  There is no short-term fix for a product problem.  You can’t just throw $20M of marketing at it and hope the customers don’t notice.

    The truly unfortunate thing is that no heads are likely to roll at GM over this because in all likelihood, no one there recognizes what they did wrong.  They have lost customer focus, don’t understand that marketing is about authenticity (not splashy ads), and they are probably quite proud of this brilliant creative idea, despite how it backfired.  I wish I could get paid the big bucks for being that smart.

    Oh yes.  I almost forgot.  GM is due no kudos for how they handled the problem.  Once the rules were published, the technology online and the stock film available, the genie was out of the bottle.  Those ads have been emailed all over the internet, probably 10 to 100 times more often than the middle-of-the-road ‘nice’ contest entries.  They had no choice but to let it go.  Censoring the negative ads would simply have poured fuel on the fire.

    The net is, the money is wasted.  The ads, if put on TV will do no good because they target the wrong buyer.  The biggest brand damage is not because of the campaign (I doubt that the appropriate target segment will ever see the negative parody ads, virally or otherwise), but because they spent money that should have been spent on the product positioning it appropriately within its segment and fixing quality and other issues.  GM execs are unlikely to realize that it is their brand strategy that needs revamping, rather than this single campaign catastrophe.

  15. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul-brilliant as usual. You never disappoint. ; )

  16. jb says:

    Just before I read your post… I was IMed the following:

    Imagine that…

  17. HeatherLeigh says:

    oh, death wishes on my blog…how lovely. Thanks for sharing! GM should feel proud to have that associated with their brand

  18. Paul says:

    I aim to please.

    btw, for those who enjoy a wry laugh, and can’t get enough of the Tahoe, this page is the motherlode.×812060

    Caution: some of these go a lot further than the tame examples that have been on the news.

  19. Try this. Compare the Tahoe on gas consumption and CO2 emissions to vehicles that Forbes says are its peers, Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada, Toyoto Sequoia.

    Found via GM’s corporate social responsibility website. Now, would I ever have gone there before? Probably not.

    I’d love to see a comparison like this comparing Microsoft to Linux to Apple etc.

  20. HeatherLeigh says:

    Dominic-I’m sure the comparisons are out there. If we invited all the Linux devotees out there to create advertisements about Windows using our own marketing dollars and hyping it using the Apprentice, my opinion would be about the same.  

    Of course, we are comparing apples and oranges. Your position seems to be that their cars aren’t bad, my position is that their marketing is. You think everyone who saw those ads automatically researched a comparison? I sure didn’t.  And Bob Lutz’s response on the FastLane blog seemed like an eloquent version of "we meant to do that". I’m not saying they are bad people. I’m just saying this was not smart marketing, in my opinion. That’s all. If you spend marketing $$, you need to have a net gain somewhere (revenues, brand perception). If you and I cancel each other out, where’s the net gain?

  21. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul-those are good. My favorite so far: "helicopeters are cool"

  22. Paul says:


    You are missing the point.  Do you drive a GM product, or just feel a nationalistic need to defend them?

    Very few people buy products "intellectually".  Have you ever looked at the products that Consumer Reports rank as tops in their categories?  They are almost never the top selling brand in any category, yet, if we bought with our brains, there would be a strong correlation between the guide rankings and market share.

    It simply doesn’t matter if other products are worse (whether they are or not). It’s perception and brand identity that matter, and GM set themselves up to be the poster children for dumb marketing by not "getting it".

    Actually, I came back because I meant to add what I think might have been a gutsy and intelligent response to this campaign from GM’s brass.  The best way to defuse something like this, and to acknowledge that you are listening to the market would be to set up a couple of new categories of awards just for the parody ads.  Best political ad.  Best environmental ad.  Best pure-poking-fun-at-GM ad.  Best anti-SUV category, etc.  Embrace it.  Like Volkswagen adopted the motif of the flower children who adopted their vans in the 60s and early 70s.  It may or may not solve their PR problem, but it can’t hurt, and it might show that there are some real people in GM’s ivory towers.

  23. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul-you could always contact GM via their blog. Have you been there yet? I’ll tell you, what I would have liked to have seen is them saying "oops, we goofed", but instead it just looked like marketing spin to me. It looked like remedial mode, not transparency. I suspect that is a problem with many exec blogs…it’s hard to discard the "marketing speak" in favor of realness.

  24. HeatherLeigh says:

    Oh and another thing about their blog: they post stuff, but then they don’t join the dialog that ensues. That’s not being part of the conversation.

  25. Paul says:

    I think what I’d rather do than repeat myself is link back to here if that’s possible.

    re: saying "oops" – I agree.  That was implicit in my thought about embracing it.  From their perspective, even if (and I say this with fingers crossed behind my back and a big grain of salt planted in my cheek) GM anticipated this sort of reaction and wanted to play along with it, the calculating way to take advantage of it would still be to do what is discussed here.  Fall on your sword, and then embrace it.

    Call me cynical, but a company with GM’s track record just isn’t that smart.  The first shots were fired across the bough in the early 70s with a warning from the Japanese that the future would be different.  In 35 years, they’ve been unable to adapt, and now it may be too late.  Or, maybe they planned that too.  I can just hear them saying in their cigar-smoke-filled boardroom "Ok boys, we’ve got em where we want em now.  Toyota’s goin’ down."

    re: being real.  I think it would be too much of a culture shock for them.  Really.  Remember how Michael Moore got his start?  Their primal instinct will always be to try to PR manage it.

  26. Heather, Paul:

    I’m signing out of here and putting our differences down to you two having a marketing focus and me having a corporate credibility focus.

    However, I do think that this story is not over, and won’t be for a long time to come.

    Just so you know, I have no connection to GM. Actually, I won’t buy one of their vehicles because I have in the past and I thought it sucked.

    But that’s not what this is about. It’s about companies beginning to engage their stakeholders honestly. Every company could do a lot more of that. Marketing hype is not sustainable anymore…

  27. HeatherLeigh says:

    I don’t think it’s that we have a different focus, it’s that we don’t agree. If GM wants to engage stakeholders, maybe they should respond to comments on their blog and post something other than maketing speak (not that there’s anything wrong with marketing speak in the right context. But on a blog, blech!).

    Is GM better off now that they invested all this money in the campaign? I don’t think so.

  28. HeatherLeigh says:

    Here’s a blog post from BL Ochman. Evidently, none of the Pro-Chevy Tahoe ads went viral. Interesting:

  29. HeatherLeigh says:

    Oh, and here’s some interesting comentary at Church of the Customer:

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