GM begs forgiveness, again.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 16 2003 11:39 AM

General Motors Is Really, Really Sorry

This time, they swear they're making better cars. Sound familiar?

From time to time, companies find it necessary to apologize. They may not do it in so many words, but in the wake of a crisis or a scandal or a huge, news-making problem, they will mount an advertising campaign to assure you, the consumer, that efforts are underway to "win back your trust." During the Ford/Firestone fiasco a couple of years ago, for instance, both of those firms launched forgiveness campaigns.

What's a little more unusual is a company coming out and apologizing for just being generally lousy over the past couple of decades. But that is essentially what GM is doing now, with a curious campaign touting its journey on "the road to redemption." GM has run big two-page ads in major newspapers and also spins its tale on the Web.

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Like all ad campaigns, the bottom line is that GM, right now, is a fine, high-quality company, whose products you should buy immediately. It's the journey to this obvious destination that's interesting. "Thirty years ago, GM quality was the best in the world," the print ad starts. "Twenty years ago, it wasn't."

And apparently the company muddled along in a sub-par manner for 10 years before deciding to change. "The hard part [was] breaking out of our own bureaucratic gridlock," the ad copy continues, and "learning some humbling lessons from our competitors." After a "painful" decade of effort, they're now back up to snuff, putting out great cars, etc., etc. The ad cites positive consumer-satisfaction research and recent automotive awards, presumably the hook for the campaign. "The road to redemption has no finish line," the copy concludes. "But it does have a corner. And it's fair to say we've turned it."

GM says that campaign is aimed at the apparently large segment of the car-buying public that simply won't consider its models. The company's North American president calls it "a unique effort to reach those consumers whose perceptions of GM are out of step with today's reality." I suppose that's reasonable, but let's say you're one of the thousands who did buy a GM car in the 1980s and 1990s. You, apparently, were a sucker. Your vehicle was not put together by a company with "a true culture of quality in every division." That's not what I'm saying—it's what GM is saying.

Or at least, it's what GM is saying now. Twenty years ago, as it happens, GM's then-chief executive was calling 1983 "the turnaround year we have been working for." That was Roger Smith. Six years later he and GM President Robert Stempel reiterated that a "turnaround" in "product quality" and "customer service" had been underway for "some time." When Stempel assumed the top slot alone a year later he assured us that GM's "entire focus" was on customer satisfaction. Meanwhile GM's share of new-car sales fell from 44 percent of the U.S. market to about 35 percent.

Stempel was run out of Dodge (as it were) by the company's board about two years later, and GM announced that "fundamental changes" in its business were underway. Market share dipped below 30 percent, but not to worry. In late 1994 the New York Times reported that the new president and CEO was saying that GM's North American operations "had 'absolutely' turned the corner." Another GM executive noted the carmaker's focus on the consumer ... and so on. Last year, for what it's worth, GM had about 28 percent of the domestic vehicle market.

In fairness, it's more the rule than the exception for companies to think the way GM is thinking now: If there is trouble, it lives in the past; the present is an eternal moment of comeback and rediscovery, a happy corner that is constantly turned anew. Moreover, the carmaker may really be in better shape today than it was in the 1980s. Reading up on those days reminded me of just what a basket case General Motors was back then. I'd forgotten all of that—until, of course, the current marketing campaign reminded me.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.