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General Motors Tries to Transform

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Product placement is just fucking great. It’s less intrusive than commercial breaks, billboards, most forms of guerrilla marketing, and flyers. By using it, shows and films get the production money they need from advertisers. Sometimes it’s retarded — do any of us know a rich Italian-American woman who drinks as much Coca-Cola as Carmela Soprano? But in terms of an advertising device, it’s not bad.

However, an upcoming example of product placement has taken me aback.

Transformers, an upcoming DreamWorks LLC and Paramount Pictures film, is based on a television series, which in turn is based on a line of 1980s-era toys that could morph from various objects (often vehicles) into humanoid fighting machines.

This film won’t just star the fantastic robots people in my age bracket may remember repeatedly breaking 20-odd years ago. It’ll also star four new-model General Motors automobiles. A character called Bumblebee, for example, will morph from a Chevrolet Camaro. Three other characters will morph respectively from the Pontiac Solstice, the Hummer H2, and the GMC TopKick.

Now, General Motors has often employed product placement in TV and film, but this is different.

As the company struggles with increasingly poor performance and poor brand perception, it’s attempting to claw back to the top by having its brands star as the ‘closeted,’ non-robot versions of the good guys — in a movie directed toward kids. Yes, kids. We can go on about the nostalgia value of the Transformers franchise for people my age, but kids love robots and we all know it.

Now, advertising to children may not be the prettiest industry in the world, but it’s an established one that won’t go away any time soon. However, storyline embedded product placement directed at children for adult products is something else again. It’s essentially subliminal advertising. A child who hasn’t yet learnt to recognise hallmarks of the GM brand will learn them in association with awesome robots that save the world.

Bob Kraut, GM's brand marketing and advertising director, carries the repercussions even further: “The cars are integral to the story… It’s a story of good versus evil. Our cars are the good guys.”

Remember, this is GM. That means this is a desperate bid for market share from a company which deserved to lose market share due to its inability to bear international competition in the automotive sector. It’s a mad scramble for prestige from a company whose performance over the last decade hasn’t merited a scrap of prestige. It’s a paid-for-paean for a company that's even outsourcing its white collar jobs now.

But it’s also a desperate marketing ploy that might make the present generation of seven-year olds think these cars are really cool in a moral and robotic way when they're old enough to buy one.

Now, I’m not suggesting a movie be boycotted because the product placement in it is too aggressive. But I am suggesting that, before you take a young relative to see Transformers, you ask yourself if you really want to be ferried back and forth from the old folks' home in 50 years by a twat driving a GM.

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About Melita Teale

  • Bob Bakshi

    The domestic auto companies have been losing market share primarily to
    the Asian manufacturers. The reason for the dire straits of our
    domestic manufacturers is because of our country’s innate belief in
    what we call “free trade”. Is the trade really “free”? The Japanese
    manipulate the exchange rates and have fostered a “weak yen policy”
    for decades. Toyota last quarter recorded a $3 billion profit. In
    their press release they stated that $1 billion was currency related.
    To state this in simpler terms, this benefit is equivalent to a cost
    advantage of $3500 per small size automobile, $6000 per mid size
    vehicle and $11,000 per luxury vehicle. This excludes health and
    retiree costs, the so called legacy costs that burden the domestics.
    If the trade is really “free”, why is the currency “managed”?

    The free trade experts point to the fact that the Japanese are
    building manufacturing plants in the U.S… However, they do not point
    out that up to 70% of the components for these automobiles are
    supplied by the auto parts manufacturers from Asia. That is why our
    component manufacturers such us Delphi and Collins Aikman etc. are
    going into bankruptcy. We are forcing our component manufacturers to
    re-locate to Asia just to remain competitive with the Asians. We are
    exporting our technology and eventually we will be performing most of
    our R&D abroad.

    Since we are on the free trade subject, let’s take a look at NAFTA.
    Since NAFTA the domestics and the import manufacturers have set up
    plants in Canada and Mexico. We used to have surpluses with Canada and
    Mexico before NAFTA. Our trade deficit with Mexico has gone from a
    surplus of $2 billion to a deficit of $26 billion (mostly because of
    the auto trade imbalance). The domestics have also moved their
    manufacturing to Mexico and Canada because of cheap labor in Mexico
    and no health costs in Canada. This shift in manufacturing is
    destroying our manufacturing base in the U.S.

    The Auto industry is directly or indirectly responsible for 11 percent
    of the U.S. manufacturing and 4% of the U.S. GDP. As we export our
    manufacturing to cheap labor / no health cost countries, we will keep
    increasing the standard of living in Mexico, Canada and the Asian
    countries by destroying the living standards in this country. With
    out current Trade policies we will lose our manufacturing base in this
    country and eventually be unable to respond to a global crisis like we
    did in World War II. Even Joseph Stalin admitted that the Allies would
    not have won World War II had it not been for the Industrial strength
    of the United States.

    It is no accident that the Asians are building truck plants in the
    U.S… Import Pick-ups have a 25% tariff. Most of the Truck
    manufacturing by the Japanese is done in Thailand. It is therefore not
    surprising that Thailand is now seeking a free trade agreement with
    the U.S. The only strength of the domestics is now going to be
    attacked internally and externally by the Asians. It would not be
    surprising that our highly “lobbied” (aka corrupt) congressmen are
    swayed into adopting another NAFTA type agreement with Thailand.

    The U.S. market is the richest market in the world. No wonder everyone
    wants to play in our market. The Japanese make 70% of their worldwide
    profits in this country. These very same countries do not have a free
    trade policy in their country. When the Japanese started their Auto
    industry in the 1960’s, they asked all foreign manufacturers to leave
    until their auto industry base was strong enough. This “Managed Trade
    Approach” has now been utilized by the Koreans as well. The U.S.
    manufacturers sell less than 5000 units annually in Korea. We have let
    the Asian manufacturers call the shots because of our foreign policy
    interests with these countries. We are letting the U.S. State
    Department manage our Trade Agreements. Our Trade agreements play
    second fiddle to our foreign policy. We keep looking the other way
    despite the destruction of our U.S based manufacturers.

    Auto exports from Japan and Korea to the U.S. keep increasing every
    year despite the Asians having manufacturing plants in this country.
    Why can we not ask the Asians to put a moratorium on imports, and any
    increase in their vehicle sales in the U.S. should be developed from
    their manufacturing plants in this country? This way they would have
    to invest in this country and we could keep our manufacturing base
    intact in the event of hostilities. The U.S. companies in Asia and in
    Europe build cars in Asia and Europe for consumption in Asia and
    Europe. We must insist the Europeans and the Asians do the same in our
    country. Let’s make the playing field level for a change.

    With China now joining the auto manufacturing fray it is going to
    become even more complicated. Again China insisted that the foreign
    auto companies build plants in China. I don’t see the Koreans or the
    Japanese exporting cars into China. China again is using the Japanese
    model of the “Managed Trade Approach”. What is even more alarming is
    that the build capacity in China is going to be at least 4 million in
    excess of their domestic needs. Where do you think these cars at “the
    China Price” are going to come? If we do not change our Trade policy,
    in 10 years we will become a 2nd tier nation. Most of our auto
    manufacturing will move to Asia. We could potentially lose 2 million
    auto related jobs and as our other manufacturing base deteriorates,
    this could lead to a loss of up to 15 million jobs

    As it is the brain drain has started. More Americans are going to
    China and India to work. Getting an engineering degree for a U.S.
    student is not going to be very lucrative in the future. Instead of
    attracting the brightest and best from the world over, we are going to
    be exporting talent to the rest of the world because that is where
    these manufacturing and engineering jobs are going to reside. Our
    standard of living in this country will continue to deteriorate while
    the rest of the worlds will keep getting better.

    It is unfair to blame the domestic manufacturers for the legacy costs
    of health and retirement. Before you blame the American Auto Makers
    for their high cost of manufacturing, take a hard look at your
    surroundings. None of the comforts we take for granted today would be
    around you were it not for the “fact that American auto makers and
    other traditional manufacturing companies created a social contract
    with government and labor that raised America’s standard of living and
    provided much of the economic growth of the 20th century.” (From Rick
    Wagoner’s editorial in the WSJ, Dec’05). So before you blame the Rick
    Wagoner’s, Bill Ford’s and other leaders of our domestic auto
    companies, blame our President, and our government for putting us in
    the mess we are in today. Even Jack Welch could not fix GM or Ford.
    Leadership is not the problem. We can blame the product that the
    domestics produce but no product is going to be good enough in the
    face of an $11,000 disadvantage on a luxury vehicle just due to
    currency manipulation.

    We need a national policy that levels the playing field. We also need
    to go to a “Managed Trade Approach” and protect our manufacturing base
    and our living standards. Let the Asians build plants in the U.S., not
    only for assembling the automobiles but also the components that go
    into these automobiles. Let’s not support “free trade” as it is not
    “free”. Let’s not have our foreign policy dictate and / or monitor our
    trade agreements. Let’s not make agreements that give countries an
    opportunity to come into our market for the greater good of our
    foreign policy. We should not open our markets just to increase the
    living standards of the world at the cost of living standards of
    Americans. After all, some one very smart said “charity begins at

    GM knows how to build cars. Before you blame all the problems on GM and the domestic auto makers please understand the reasons for their loss of market share.

  • Bob, this is obviously a form comment you place on all the comment-able article you find that criticize GM as an automaker in any way. I have three things to write in response:

    1. This article is about an advertising technique employed by GM that I find reprehensible. Your comment is therefore a long, whining non-sequitur.

    2. GM has wilfully ignored changing international market demands in terms of more fuel-efficient cars and, for all your suggestions that it’s a victim of the federal government, lobbied that government hard to not introduce the sort of industry emissions standards that are current in other developed countries. It has ignored the market in favour of trying to shape it, disrespecting the interests of its employees and shareholders and the desires of its customers. So while you complain about trade agreements in relation to GM’s performance, you might want to throw in a few complaints about that too.

    3. GM cars are boring. All the manipulative, child-directed product placement in the world won’t change that. Only better cars will.

  • Johnstone

    What do I care what kind of car ferries me around in 50 years…I just hope I’m sane enough to even know it! However, your comment is insightful because I remember my parents saying similar but worried about being ferried in Japanese (or foreign)cars…something seen as a terrible thing then….but now the japanese cars are all the rage. And deservedly so, I’ve owned both honda’s and toyotas in my life span. Their cars have served me well and I don’t have a complaint about either brand. They are well run car companies. But I will tell you what most will not believe nor take the time or have the open mind to find out. The domestics and especially GM are making great cars…yes better than the japanese now in my view with more options , edgier design — that’s right, edgier design, at better price points (at least i can say that about the 2007’s). But don’t ask anyone who grew up in the 60s, 70s or 80s to believe that…they can no more get their head around that than my parents could get around the idea of a well made foreign car 35 years ago. What goes around comes around and I now have 2 GM cars in my drive way not because I believe in driving american, or providing jobs to americans or any other patriotic notion other than they work the best for what my family requires, they are reasonably priced, and when I test drove several makes they were they simply stood above the best. I don’t have a problem with the product placement in a child’s movie, I watched more popeye cartoons than any of my friends when I was a kid and I still don’t like spinach.

  • Spinach is good for you, Johnstone. It should promote itself. When e.coli isn’t involved, of course. Another thing you might want to bear in mind about spinach is that it’s a nutritious but bitter leafy plant you can grow in your backyard, and not a brand. The marketing dynamic isn’t the same.

    I’m glad GM cars have answered to your family’s needs. What models do you have and how did they compare with competitors? Personally, I think GM has a long way to go in terms of performance, fuel efficiency and emissions before it can recoup its losses.

  • J Rice

    I work for General Motors and am a proud member of Generation X. I resent you unAmerican people trashing General Motors like this and spreading uniformed lies because of your disgusting bias towards foreign cars and your hatred of The Untied States of America. Now, though I am a member of the UAW, I am not a Demorat by any stretch of the imagination. I am not a Republican either. I am a free-thinking independent who loves God, family, and country. And even before I went to work for GM, I always bought American.
    As for GM’s quality, it has surpassed Toyota. In case you missed it from the liberal, God-hating, anti-American media, Toyota has had more recalls than any other auto maker for the last two years running. Meanwhile, according to Edmunds.com, GM had more positive feedback about their cars than any other auto maker this year.
    Get your facts straight and stop lying about a great American company. Oh yeah, and I’m more than happy that Bumblebee will now be a Chevy Camero instead of an old VW Bug. Autobots, roll out! And God bless America!

  • Melita Teale

    Good lord, I thought this thing died before it was born months ago.

    Catmax, I don’t understand your comment in any context except throwing up a link to GM products and saying that the only thing that matters when it comes to advertising is that it’s effective. Sorry if I misunderstand you, because as it stands I certainly don’t agree with you. There are lots of things that matter in advertising besides how effective it is, like how misleading it is and how damaging it is. Consumer rights aside, companies increasingly pay for that shit.

    J Rice, I hope GM shows you the same loyalty you show it, but that’s not really part of its track record when it comes to its employees. And what do you mean by mentioning buying American in a comment about GM when so many of their automotive components, assembly plants, and staff are as ‘unAmerican’ as I most definitely am?