If you want to restore yourself to the good graces of the American people who just rescued you from the fate that befell Tucker and Nash and American Motors, this isn’t the way to go about it, General Motors.
GM executives are being rightly scored – from Capitol Hill to Madison Avenue – for public statements and a new advertising campaign, both featuring CEO Ed Whitacre, that imply the company has repaid its obligation to the U.S. government and to the American people. Or at least that could be inferred as doing so.
The ads on all major TV networks have been noting that the company repaid its original $6.7-billion U.S.-government loan “in full” and “with interest five years ahead of the original schedule,” as Whitacre walks through a GM plant.
One problem with such a hopeful narrative, of course, is that GM simply repaid the loan with another part of its proceeds from the government bailout, robbing Peter to pay Paul, as it were – or maybe robbing Nancy to pay Barack. Whitacre didn’t mention that in the ads.
Neither did President Obama’s handpicked CEO mention that American taxpayers ponied up a total of about $52 billion of government aid in all to keep GM, its employees, pensions, unions, suppliers and communities from a whole heap more trouble.
Nor did Whitacre draw attention to the company’s remaining massive obligation to the federal treasury or give a timetable for paying all of that back. Politicians of both parties, as a result, are justifiably upset about Whitacre’s characterizations. And some in the advertising community are calling him to account as well.
Whitacre has been turning GM upside down with the explicit backing of the Obama administration and the implicit trust of the American people, communicating – by how he is changing the company -- that this is truly a new era for the king of domestic automakers. The shock of the Great Recession, and GM’s new status as a ward of the state, have given Whitacre wide latitude in remaking a corporation and a brand that had become ossified despite efforts by its top leadership over the decades to reverse GM’s slide.
But this new spin is unseemly, at best. Perhaps finally on the cusp of recovery, GM deserves better from its new leadership – and so do the American people. The only way for GM and its brands to recover in full is for Whitacre and his cohorts to continue to remember that the company still owes the public, big-time, and that they won’t rest until that solemn obligation has been satisfied.