GM bankruptcy ad is a symphony of weasel words

In the face of the greatest single corporate collapse in the history of the world, GM rolled out an ad that inadvertently explains the company’s failure.

It is a veritable symphony of weasel words.

Let’s be completely honest, no company wants to go through this.

By the end of that first sentence it is clear this ad has no intention whatsoever of living up to that initial clause. You can tell because the final pronoun is never made specific. That “this” covers billions of sins. It implies we all know what has happened without saying what that was. It is everything to everyone and thus means nothing. Is “this” an utter failure of leadership? Or is it an inability to have even the vaguest understanding of the needs of the marketplace? Sadly, I suspect “this” is “an economic calamity no one could have foreseen” – the preferred phrase of everyone from Alan Greenspan to, well, the Detroit-based car makers. There is no taking responsibility anywhere in this ad just as there has been no taking responsibility at GM for decades.

But we’re not witnessing the end of the American car,

We’re witnessing the rebirth of the American car.

The conflation of America and GM is offered as an explanation as to why the US citizen is now on the hook for $50+ billion dollars. GM = American car and of course we need to save American car. This neatly sidesteps two key facts: 1) Ford has somehow managed to avoid contributing to the financial debacle that is the US government; and 2) Honda, Toyota and all those other companies who build and sell cars in the US are just as “American” as GM. Actually by the very fact they haven’t required our tax dollars to pay for them to go out of business they are, in my eyes, far more patriotic than GM. They are providing jobs and generating funds for the nation and its citizens.

General Motors needs to start over in order to get stronger.

You can’t argue with the need to start over. It is a safe, bland phrase which appeals to the charitable side in everyone. After all, who hasn’t had problems and who doesn’t believe in a second chance? And we are offered no option but the opinion that GM will get stronger. This is an emotional appeal specifically aimed at diverting attention from the fact that this is a business, not your neighbor or nephew. Any discussion of capitalism and free markets is shunted aside. This isn’t about dollars or stock price or the rich getting richer, no this is about helping someone who is down on his luck.

And lest we forget how dazzling and brilliant that friend once was:

There was a time when eight different brands made sense, not anymore.

There was a time when our cost structure could compete world-wide, not anymore.

Note the use of the phrase “There was a time.” The rhetoric seeks to use past successes as another way of avoiding responsibility. This is nothing more than a badly bloated rewriting of “Mistakes were made.” This is followed up quickly by a blizzard of meaningless business jargon and words that imply much but mean nothing.

Reinvention is the only way we can fix this and fix it, we will.

So here’s what the new GM is going to be:

Fewer, stronger brands.

Fewer, stronger models.

Greater efficiencies.

Better fuel economy.

And new technologies.

Leaner, greener, faster, smarter.

Reinvention! Yes that’s the ticket!

Well, actually what GM needs is the corporate equivalent of putting senior management up against the wall. To actually re-invent the company everyone associated with the ancient regime would need to be replaced. The successor executives are about as likely to break from past failed policies as Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner. Since I am paying for this fiasco can I make a suggestion: Jim Stengel’s stepping down from P&G, can we put him in charge? If not Stengel – and I would not wish this job on anyone – then how about someone else who has experience running a successful business?

Having invoked the empty but pretty idea of re-invention the ad descends into a staccato barrage of lovely sounding words and phrases signifying nothing: Fewer, stronger, greater, better, leaner, greener, faster, smarter!

The ad ends with triumphal horn blast

This is not about going out of business, this is about getting down to business.

Because the only chapter we’re focused on is Chapter 1.

The first sentence is straight from the handbook of Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen who penned all those pretty reversible quotes like “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It is a call to action that requires no action. A promise without commitment. The final words are a smug wink and a nudge, an effort to let you know how clever they – or the ad writers – still are. Note the unspoken play on Chapter 11.

At a time when what the company and all three of its remaining customers need are a few simple declarative sentences we get more of the usual: Pretty smoke and brilliant mirrors. GM still wants us to believe its management knows what is best for the company. I didn’t mind that claim nearly as much when they weren’t using my money to make it.

I am clearly not the only person to feel this way. Here is the version of the GM ad I would have made if I had the video skills I clearly don’t.

4 thoughts on “GM bankruptcy ad is a symphony of weasel words

  1. How do bankrupt companies pay for flashy TV ads?

    I guess you American tax-payers fitted the marketing bill too

  2. Pingback: 10 Worst Marketing Blunders of 2009 « Collateral Damage

  3. Pingback: Domino’s realizes it makes really bad pizza « Collateral Damage

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