Commercial in Chief

Ed Whitacre, the chairman of General Motors who also became CEO in December, made his second appearance in a GM spot last month. Though he had seemingly good news — announcing that the company had paid back its government loans “in full, with interest, five years ahead of the original schedule” — he hardly seemed jubilant.

In fact, he showed pretty much the same undertaker mien as he did in his first commercial, postbankruptcy, when he was baleful about the bailout and begged viewers to take a look at GM’s cars. In that ad, at least, he actually cracked a smile.

So, let’s recap the formula for both spots, taken from the ancient Lee Iacocca files: gruff old white guy, ill-fitting dark suit, a CEO walk-by. Check, check, check.

Though many people might not remember, Iacocca performed a miracle for Chrysler some 30 years ago. The quality of the company’s then — new K-cars and Iacocca’s no-nonsense performance combined to part a sea of red ink and bring the company back to profitability.

His confident walk has been copied by CEOs in ads ever after because literally moving forward is its own visual metaphor. Plus, it gives the chairman or CEO an almost military air of authority.

But in the last two decades or so, as corporations have moved to become less bureaucratic and more democratic, CEOs have tried to loosen up their own images accordingly. They now show up in jeans and work shirts sporting the company logo or doing something funny, like the Spirit Airlines chief who recently did an entire spot (defending the carrier charging for carry-on bags) while smushed in an overhead bin.

Social media is a separate issue. But as for big, old, nationwide TV commercials, my view is that the talking bigwig-whether militarily precise or off-puttingly up close and personal-rarely works unless he or she is a company founder with a remarkable, relatable story. Or an animated Gecko.

Whitacre is neither. A former AT&T chairman, he was appointed to the GM CEO post by the Obama White House via Rahm Emanuel and is regularly on the Forbes list of executives who earn a gazillion dollars. The tall Texan is the consummate inside operator.

In fairness, the agency, McCann Erickson in Detroit, seems to have tried to put a little more personality into this second spot. There’s more activity and animation around Whitacre, from humans and robots, as he does his walk and talk. We also see cars and the new assembly lines, and Mr. Chairman actually seems to be interacting with some of the employees along the way.

It ends with some smiling workers standing behind him as he “invites” us to look at the cars, which is a bit more deferential to the viewer. In the first ad, he was so curt he didn’t even say hello.

But there’s far more to criticize here than mere surface form. The content is misleading at best. Whitacre says the government loans have been “paid back in full,” but what’s been revealed is that it depends on what you mean by “paid back.” People who took out a second mortgage to pay off their credit card will understand.

It seems what GM has essentially done is taken a portion of one TARP payment to pay back another, apparently part of a grand PR move to prepare for GM’s new initial public offering, to recoup money to pay executives off in stock. Unless GM posts a huge profit for Q1 2010, which seems unlikely, the plan is financially unsustainable.

The problem here is much deeper than what the CEO is wearing or how he pronounces vehicles (“vee-hicles”).

Publish date: May 16, 2010 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT