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GM pulls anti-bike ads

After an outcry from bicycling advocates, General Motors has pulled an ad aimed at college students that said, “Stop pedaling… start driving.”

The ad, part of a GM College Discount campaign called “Reality Sucks,” ran recently in student newspapers. Here’s a copy of it reproduced from the UCLA Daily Bruin and posted online this week by Bike Portland:

Stop Pedaling, Stop Driving General Motors Anti-Bike Campaign

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The League of American Bicyclists put it best: “In one of the more remarkably ill-conceived car ad campaigns of all time, good corporate citizen GM is heading to campus to actively stop you from riding a bike by trying to make it look like it sucks.”

Bike advocates swiftly took to social media to shout down this campaign. The GM College Program Facebook page was flooded with complaints. By Wednesday, the outcry had grown so intense that GM’s Twitter feed began telling people that the ad was being pulled.

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As a cyclist, I understand the outrage over this ad. I also suspect the ad writers weren’t aware of the nerve they were hitting when they wrote it. It’s a simple enough concept: GM makes it affordable to trade up from your inexpensive vehicle (ie., a bike) to a nicer one (ie., a car).

The problem is that cyclists have a good sense of humor, but not when it comes to bikes versus cars. We’ve had too many experiences with reckless motorists endangering our safety to really feel comfortable laughing about it. Most cyclists are proud to be riding a non-polluting, healthy vehicle. And generally, cyclists get a little bit prickly when someone suggests we’re riding by necessity rather than by choice (ie., we’re poor).

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From a brand perspective, this shows us the dangers of ads that stray off message. GM is a huge company with so many people working on its advertising that they can’t all be singing in unison. But this is a huge departure from the brand identity.

GM has spent the last few years using its Chevy Volt brand to promote itself as a “green” company. It has some big reasons to do so. First, it has to compete with Toyota and the Prius. Second, the Obama administration wants to raise fuel economy standards, which would be expensive and difficult for GM. And having accepted an unpopular $4.7 billion taxpayer bailout, GM has little political leverage. If GM can show that it’s voluntarily becoming a greener company, regulators might be more likely to leave them alone.

And so GM turns out ads like this:

The environmentally-friendly GM never rang true with me. When I think of GM, I think of big, heavy Buicks with chrome tailfins and whitewall tires. I think of “Who Killed The Electric Car?” the streetcar scandal. I think of the Transformers movie, where a team of GM muscle cars and trucks turned into giant, exhaust-belching robots that fought with the American military to defeat the evil robots. GM burns gas! That’s in its DNA!

It’s only natural that the company that brought us the Hummer H2 is going to run an ad poking fun at bicyclists. It feels more honest than any of the environmental branding GM has tried to run.

To me, this small, cheap college newspaper ad has singlehandedly erased all the goodwill GM accumulated with its multi-million-dollar Chevy Volt campaign.

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Related post: Would you have sex with this car?

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Advertising

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