I don't think it's fair to criticize advertising campaigns—picking apart someone else's hard work is for non-achievers. But today I've got to make an exception.

How do you confront a market perception that your products are inferior?

Let's look at how General Motors, in print and at its Web site, appears to be doing this.

In print, it was a two-page spread. I saw it in a waiting room in the June 22 issue of People (Cover 2 and the facing page).

The headline is this:


On the facing page, a smaller headline:

Thirty Years Ago, GM Quality Was The Best In The World. Twenty Years Ago, It Wasn't. The Story Of Our Long Journey Back

The text describes how they had to “break out of our own bureaucratic gridlock” and learn “some humbling lessons from our competitors.” And so on. In other words, to summarize, for 20 years they were screwed up as a company, and after spending the last 10 years getting their act together they're finally making good cars again.

So, GM is handling the problem of quality perception with sackcloth and ashes. A multimedia mea culpa.

Kids, don't try this at home.

There are so many things wrong with this, I can't begin to squeeze them into the limits that MarketingProfs sets on article word count.

So I'll discuss The Big One.

If you go out and announce to your marketplace that you've been building junk for 20 plus years, what in the name of David Ogilvy do you think they're going to think of you?

Consider all those people—loyal, buy-American Chevy owners—who didn't know that they had been buying second-rate cars since 1980 (and perhaps before). I didn't know it. You may not have known it.

Well, we all know it now.

Doesn't that mean that all those years of advertising where they told us their cars were just as good as or better than any car on the road was nothing but lies?

The engineers who designed those cars are as smart as any other, and they must have known the cars they were building weren't good. The executives who ran GM knew it, because the engineers told them so. The marketing department knew it… the people on the assembly line knew it. Everybody knew it. So when they told us how good they were, they were just (to paraphrase Mark Twain) distributing a load of taffy.

And since they've proven they'll lie to sell a car, why should we believe them now?

Call me a cynic, but I don't believe that GM looked at product quality and said, “You know guys, we've really been building cruddy cars for all these years, and by jingo we ought to fess up.”

I imagine they did a bunch of research and concluded that the market perception was negative, and they figured they had to do something about that.

And you know what that makes me think? That if the researchers came in and told them that they were fine from a perception standpoint, they would still be going merrily along making those same lousy cars.

(If, in fact, they are now making better cars, instead of just better ads.)

Of course, not everyone thinks about advertising as I do. I'm sure that the marketplace doesn't dissect this in the same way I'm doing here. Ads act on people subtly, less intellectually, more viscerally and subconsciously.

But even if the marketplace doesn't articulate this, I think—strongly—that this is exactly what they're going to “feel” when they are exposed to this campaign. Time will tell if I'm correct.

If the perception in the market is of low-quality product, GM does in fact have a problem to solve. But there are better ways to do it. (In fact, I really can't think of a worse way, unless they told us they made lousy cars on purpose and they had every intention of continuing to do so.)

And I'm all for attacking a problem head-on, with candor and honesty.

But there are a lot of ways to demonstrate quality without telling everyone you used to build lemons but you don't anymore. Feature-by-feature comparisons with the prime competition (they'll win some and lose some like everyone else). Detailed technical specifications. Testimonials and endorsements. Test results. No point in going through the list—you can think of as many as I can.

And, in fact, they're doing some of this… I applaud their 24-hour test drive program as innovative and intelligent.

But announcing that you've been peddling poor product for 20 years?

Somewhere there's an agency and some marketing executives who deserve a mighty big tactical spanking for this one.

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image of Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal coach and consultant of Markitek (markitek.com), which for over a decade has provided marketing consulting and coaching services to companies around the world, from startups and SMEs to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. You can contact him by clicking here.