GM's Edgy Super Bowl Spot Raises Eyebrows

ByERIC HORNG

CHICAGO, Feb. 5, 2007 — -- A 60-second Super Bowl spot from General Motors followed the nightmarish, downward spiral of an assemby line robot.

After the robot drops a screw, it is escorted from the factory amid disapproving glares from its human co-workers.

The downtrodden robot picks up humiliating odd jobs -- holding a "condos-for-sale" sign and the squawk box outside a fast food drive-thru -- and stares longingly as GM vehicles drive past. To the anthemic strains of Eric Carmen's "All By Myself," the hapless robot commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Just then, the robot wakes up in the factory -- a la Bobby Ewing on "Dallas." All is not lost. It was just a dream.

For GM, which has been struggling to change public perceptions about the quality of its vehicles, the message is simple: The world's largest automaker is "obsessed with quality," as the tag line says, and has a sense of humor to boot.

But the ad -- which aired for the first time during the Super Bowl and touts GM's five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty -- did not resonate with all viewers.

"I think, in this case, GM failed," said Ann McGill, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "It has a very dark tone. It's creepy. It's extremely sad, and the realization that it's a dream doesn't remedy any of that creepiness and sadness."

Creepy or not, some said the theme of the commercial seemed strangely ironic -- even offensive -- given GM's recent financial woes. Fifteen months ago, the company announced it would lay off 30,000 workers and close at least 14 plants by 2008 as part of a restructuring plan.

"[The ad] is absolutely disgusting," said Art Reyes, president of United Auto Workers Local 651 in Flint, Mich., and a third-generation UAW member. Reyes said Local 651's membership has been cut in half in the past 18 months because of job cuts throughout the U.S. auto industry.

"Their way of life was affected. Their way of life was destroyed. This just completely glosses over their hardships," said Reyes. "What General Motors has been doing by tapping people on the shoulder to get rid of them, whole plants at a time, it wasn't because of a dropped bolt ... we have a qualified work force here."

Others said suicide is nothing to joke about.

"Whether with a robot or a real person, imitating suicide in any way like this can have really negative effects," said Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Bloomington, Minn.-based suicide prevention group SAVE. "We just recently lost the Ford plant here in St. Paul, and we know there's an increase in people seeking mental health services as a result."

In a written statement, GM said the ad " ... tells the story of GM's commitment to quality because GM employees, together with the UAW, are building the best cars, trucks, SUVs and crossovers in our history. We are confident that our vehicles can compete head to head with anyone and everyone, and we're willing to back that up with the industry's best warranty."

The United Auto Workers national office offered no comment about the spot, which was filmed at GM's plant in Lansing, Mich., and produced with the help of ad firm Deutsch L.A.

The feedback hasn't all been negative. The commercial, which GM reportedly paid $5.2 million to air during Sunday's big game, has received kudos as well.

"It's nice to see that people in the industry are still thinking, and an ad that involves an actual thought instead of using celebrities, slapstick, etc.," said the art director of one advertising firm, who asked not to be identified.

Within minutes of its airing, the spot was posted on numerous Web sites, including YouTube. Viewer comments on that site ranged from "brilliant" and "inventive" to "the saddest commercial I've ever seen..." and "a waste of my time."

Controversial Super Bowl spots are nothing new. Two years ago, GoDaddy.com was criticized for its racy -- some say crude -- commercial that poked fun at the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction." Viewers have also bristled at the flood of erectile dysfunction ads of Super Bowls past.

"Advertisers commonly during the Super Bowl go to extremes to make points," said McGill. "The danger of that is ... sometimes they come off insulting and insensitive, even if the advertiser didn't mean it."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events