GM Super Bowl XLI Ad: Why It Won’t Work


In the ad, a car assembly line robot happens to drop a screw. The supposedly quality-obsessed company (GM) shows him the door. The Robot wanders the streets doing odd jobs and wistfully eyeing the passing cars (all GM brands, of course); eventually, he commits suicide by jumping off a cliff. Before you jerk a tear, relax; the robot was merely having a nightmare. The moral of the story: GM is so quality-obsessed, even robots on the assembly line suffer deep, enduring quality lapse anxiety.


A commentary in BW (Feb 12, 2007, p.80-81) informs us  that the agency (Deutsch/LA)  tried to make the robot feel human, i.e., that human viewers will find the robot human like. Do they?  Perhaps they do, but the goal of achieving perfect anthropomorphism (having a non-robot experiencing human emotions) is to have viewers feel empathy and merely making the robot humanlike does not ensure that. After all we do not feel empathy for any and all humans in the real world.


More to the point: 

The issue is GM quality and consumer concerns about it. That consumer perception of poor GM quality can be altered only by the product’s reality, and correspondingly by a factual communication of the product’s new (if) reality. Objective quality facts (e.g., J.D. Powers survey), if available, will go farther than any sci-fi story. Communicating objective, factual content is boring, you say? Well, isn’t that what clients pay the ad creatives for—anyone can make a fictional story interesting; the trick is to figure out how to make facts interesting.


Advertisers are well aware of two broad Ad formats: lecture and drama—presentation, respectively, of factual data as factual data (lecture) and narration of a story, factual or otherwise (drama). In the drama option, if raising consumer perception of brand’s newfound quality is the objective, the story has to be about a real event, not about a fictional concoction. Stories of real happenings on the shop floor that ensure zero quality lapse; of new design and production improvements that index quality upgrades, of customers experiencing first hand the improved quality, for example.


Fictional stories work well, even great, when and if consumers have no negative concerns, and the brand wishes, merely but importantly, to add, onto the solid core of product’s objective merit, an extra layer of fun, emotion, mood, personality, lifestyle, fascination, make-believe, dream, aspiration, or any number of other such psycho elements. But when a consumer’s main reason for shunning a GM car is his/her apprehension about core product quality, he/she is in no mood to feel sympathy (or empathy) for a screw-dropping suicidal robot, especially if, his/her concern is not as much that a screw might be left undone but that the screw might be of poor quality to begin with!



Ban Mittal, Ph.D.


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