Chrysler and GM Ads Take Different Approaches to Repairing Companies' Images

A new GM TV ad stresses how the carmaker is reinventing itself.
A new GM TV ad stresses how the carmaker is reinventing itself. (General Motors Via Associated Press)
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

Chrysler was about one inch away from liquidation, but you'd never know it from the automaker's chest-thumping new television ads.

General Motors has just entered bankruptcy, but from that automaker's new TV ad, you'd think an apologetic GM had kicked your puppy.

Two of Detroit's Big Three automakers have found themselves dealing with the same situation: bankruptcy. But they are portraying their companies in vastly different ways.

General Motors -- once so mighty, it made half of all new cars in the United States -- has humbled itself before the American consumer. Its new television ad begins with a man's voice intoning: "Let's be completely honest. No company wants to go through this. . . . General Motors needs to start over to get stronger." The ad, a montage of images seemingly meant to show everyday American life, is part of a multimedia campaign called "re: invention" that includes a corporate Web site, where consumers can track the company's progress through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"Because the only chapter we're interested in," the GM ad concludes, "is Chapter One."

The campaign is the result of consumer research beginning last December, when the company's executives were pilloried for haughtily coming to Washington -- on a private jet -- to ask for aid. After that fiasco, GM asked consumers: What do we need to do to regain your trust?

"They just kept giving us the same feedback -- that we need to be brutally honest," said Jay Spenchian, GM's executive director of North American marketing strategy. "We need to 'man up,' was one of the terms that came out of the focus groups."

Consumers evidently told Chrysler a different story, based on that automaker's ads, which focus on its products, not its bankruptcy. This might have some logic to it: Unlike GM, which is going through bankruptcy alone, Chrysler needed bankruptcy plus an alliance with another automaker -- Fiat -- to avoid being dissolved and sold for parts.

Chrysler launched its new ads last month. One is focused on the corporation, but the others feature vehicles. The theme is "We build . . ." They show, for instance, a sports car burning rubber under the text, "We build rockets."

Among its four new product ads, only one vaguely mentions that the company just emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A print ad reads: "We're restructuring the way we do business." It does not add, "because we had to."

The ads were created by Chrysler's agency of record, BBDO, which also happens to be Chrysler's second-largest creditor. As of the April 30 bankruptcy filing, Chrysler owed BBDO $58.1 million, second only to a parts-maker.

Chrysler declined to provide an executive to comment for this article, but in a May statement, former company marketing executive Steven Landry, now the head of North American sales, said: "When we asked consumers what they wanted to know about Chrysler, they told us to tell them about our products, tell them why they should buy our vehicles and give them a reason why they should be confident in the future of this company. . . . In addition, this campaign gives us the opportunity to reinforce that it's business as usual and demonstrate a bright future ahead for Chrysler."


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