What were they thinking? Ford launched the Edsel in all seriousness, and then saved a dollar or two in its Pinto by refusing to protect the rear-mounted gas tank. GM gave us the Vega and the Hummer. Chrysler graced the market with the K car, the Cordoba and the hideous Chrysler-Maserati.
All those projects looked good at the time, and fit the marketing plans, but let’s just say they get short shrift in the company histories. Mistakes were made. But trying to sell cars to college students by attacking the poor saps who ride bicycles reaches new heights, especially in 2011. General Motors’ “Reality Sucks” ad (placed in college newspapers) shows a beleaguered, sad-faced cyclist being passed by a happy-looking lady in a car. “Stop pedaling, start driving,” it said. Can you imagine!
Needless to say, this ad, part of a college discount program, struck a chord, especially in bike-crazed Portland, Ore. I’ve been there, and wrote one of my books about how transit- and bike-friendly the city is, with racks in front of buildings and on buses, beckoning showers in downtown buildings, and huge bike rallies. Jonathan Maus, who runs Bike Portland’s blog, told me that in some parts of town, 20 to 30 percent of all travel is by bike. A quarter of trips across downtown bridges are by bike. “It feels like Europe,” he said, “though we have a long way to go to reach the bike concentrations of cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Compared to the rest of America, though, we’re doing great.”
“This is not the first insensitive ad,” Maus said, “but it was just so clearly blatant. ‘Stop pedaling, start driving’ flies in the face of any social responsibility you can think of. Right now, we have people marching in the streets about student loans they can’t afford to pay back, and GM, which had a role in dismantling public transit, telling people to go into more debt by buying its product.”
Evidently, walking sucks, too, because GM posted the picture at left on its website showing a hapless pedestrian getting sprayed by a passing motorist.
Mea culpa, says GM, we messed up. According to the company’s Tom Henderson, the concept for the ad came out of focus groups with college students over the last two years. “When they get their first job, one of the things they want is a new car,” he said. Playing up to people’s aspirations is, of course, one thing, and doing it by attacking healthy bike riding is another. Yep, and GM now agrees “this was a mistake” and has pulled the ad from the rotation. “We respect bikers and many of us here are cyclists,” Henderson said. The company tweeted, “We’re listening & making changes.”
As to the claim that GM helped dismantle public transit, it has some validity but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Yes, as GM critic Bradford Snell has written, GM created a subsidiary named United Cities Motor Transit circa 1922 to buy up trolley systems in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and a bunch of other cities. Snell calls it “a consummate business strategy.”
OK, but at the same time cars like the very cheap Model T Ford (enabled by mass production) were already putting people in the driver’s seat and reducing rail traffic. If we knew then what we know now about tailpipe exhaust, we might not have torn up half our train lines nationally. But such awareness came later.
Still, it’s fascinating that automakers used ads just like GM’s to get people out of trains and into cars. As I wrote in "Breaking Gridlock":
"Automotive magazine ads of the period actually focused on ruining the streetcar’s image. A Willys-Overland promotion, showing a sad family boarding a down-at-the-heels, crowded trolley, claimed that subjecting loved ones to such an indignity was 'not fair to your children, your wife or yourself.'"
GM has learned its lesson, and it won’t be going after bike riders anytime soon. They’re a vocal bunch. But the Madison Avenue dream factory will continue to do whatever it can to get us behind the wheel. That’s a 100-year tradition.
I guess I don't quite get the "Reality Sucks" campaign. GM invited college students to send in videos on how miserable their lives are, in the hopes of winning a free trip to South Beach. But if they're so broke and in debt, a discount program isn't likely to get them into showrooms. Some of these folks don't seem to be able to afford food! Here's a sample video: