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GM’s Whitacre is no Iacocca, the ad world says

When it comes to businessmen as pitchmen, not everybody can be Lee Iacocca.
Image: Edward Whitacre
Some even say the ad starring the 67-year-old Ed Whitacre hurts the Detroit automaker’s efforts to freshen up its image and woo younger buyers. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When it comes to businessmen as pitchmen, not everybody can be Lee Iacocca.

General Motors Co. has bet that its new chairman, Ed Whitacre, can successfully kick off its “May the best car win” campaign, which puts the struggling automaker’s vehicles up against competitors and hopes to coax reluctant buyers by offering a 60-day money-back guarantee.

The advertising world has been abuzz about the ads. Its verdict? Well, he’s no Iacocca.

Experts say Whitacre, the former CEO and chairman of telecommunications giant AT&T who became GM’s chairman in July, has some serious challenges as public face of the company — starting with the fact that not that many people know who he is.

Some even say the ad starring the 67-year-old Whitacre hurts the Detroit automaker’s efforts to freshen up its image and woo younger buyers.

In the ad, which started airing last week, Whitacre walks — clad in a dark suit and red tie — through hallways, past cars in a GM design center. He introduces the company’s new guarantee, saying in a Texan drawl he, too, was skeptical when he was tapped to come to GM but, “I liked what I found and I think you will, too.”

The ad begins a long-awaited overhaul of GM’s roughly $2 billion per year in advertising, now that the automaker has emerged from bankruptcy. The company’s board, including Whitacre — and even the government’s auto task force — recognized that GM was in need of an image makeover. The company needs to attract skeptical customers and improve sales to pay back the billions in aid it received from the government.

The Whitacre ad was originally slated to run only one week, but GM now plans to keep it rolling, “due to the positive response,” spokeswoman Katie McBride said in an e-mail Friday. Bob Lutz, GM’s marketing chief, has said the ad tested well with consumers and he couldn’t have found a better star if he’d tried. He noted Whitacre did not demand to be in the ad.

“It was the kind of research on an ad that you can only dream about,” he told reporters on a conference call earlier this month.

Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the automotive Web site, said interest in GM cars has been spurred by the guarantee and ad campaign, with traffic to GM products on the Edmunds Web site up 15 percent in the days after the campaign’s launch.

But sales are likely to take a nosedive in September after the Cash for Clunkers program, with inventory levels strained at many GM dealerships, Anwyl said.

Lutz declined to say what the company is spending on the campaign, but he predicted a much larger marketing push for GM in the last half of the year. That will make up for the millions the company saved in the first half by curtailing its ad spending.

According to TNS Media Intelligence, GM’s advertising spending from January through June fell 26 percent from last year to $773.1 million, from $1.04 billion in the previous year. Despite the drop, it was still the nation’s fifth-largest advertiser. More than half of the spending in the first six months was on television, while a quarter was in newspapers.

The Whitacre ad was produced by agency McCann Erickson, but it’s just one of many agencies GM employs. Ad agency Leo Burnett has the Buick and GMC brands but lost Pontiac, which GM is shedding. Campbell-Ewald has been Chevrolet’s agency for years. Modernista now has Cadillac.

Not everyone is pleased with the Whitacre push. Commenters on Twitter aren’t having quite as rosy a reaction, saying he’s too old, too stiff and his presence in the ads doesn’t make them want to buy GM cars.

Marketing pros say many of the same things. Experts also are questioning the company’s focus on itself even as it says it wants to emphasize individual brands like Chevrolet and Cadillac more.

One AdWeek columnist blasted the decision to make Whitacre the star in an article called “GM’s Chairman of the Bored.”

“Does he think that viewers will look up and say, “Who is he? Oh right, yes, yes, yes. He’s that former AT&T executive who announced he knew nothing about cars. Let’s see what he has to say!” wrote columnist Barbara Lippert.

“His Wikipedia page is smaller than mine. Ed Whitacre Jr. is not a household name,” wrote Laura Ries, president of marketing consulting firm Ries & Ries, on her blog last week.

If done right, an executive pitchman can help consumers connect with brands, Ries said in an interview. Apple Inc. would be nothing without founder Steve Jobs, and other notables like Orville Redenbacher, with his namesake popcorn, Perdue chicken’s Frank Perdue and Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas all were ideal spokesmen because they all had deep histories with their companies, she said.

Whitacre doesn’t have that. But that’s exactly why GM decided to use him.

He has credibility in the spot precisely because he has such little history with the beleaguered company and the industry, said Garry Neel, CEO of McCann Erickson in Detroit.

“I think maybe the public had seen a number of GM leaders on TV the previous six months, and maybe it was an opportunity to bring a new face in that had not been in the public eye attempting to justify the current situation,” Neel said.

Making him the company’s spokesman is the wrong approach, Ries said. Companies should have spokesmen who know everything about the company, and live for it.

“You have a huge, iconic company. If you were going to put someone on it, they better be someone people know and trust. And this is a guy nobody knows, and when you don’t know them, you don’t trust,” Ries said.

The ad echoes that of Iacocca, the famed Chrysler CEO and chairman who helped lead the company after it tottered on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1980s. Even the promise is similar: “If you can find a better car, buy it,” Iacocca used to say. Whitacre says, “May the best car win.”

But this ad differs from the Iacocca campaigns because Whitacre, despite his prominence in the business world, is an unknown to most of the American public, said Allen Adamson, managing director of branding firm Landor Associates. Iacocca was already well-known as the public face of Chrysler amid its troubles and even before that as the “father” of Ford’s Mustang. The ads didn’t make him famous — they just reinforced it.

Whitacre’s star turn isn’t likely to last as long as Iacocca’s. Neel said there are no plans for more ads with the chairman.

“I doubt Mr. Whitacre is going to want to become famous once again,” he said.