The pitch was so ballsy, it bordered on the laughable. An American automaker that had just emerged from bankruptcy—an endlessly beleaguered outfit that for years had been unable to build cars people wanted to buy—was launching an ad campaign that boasted, “May the Best Car Win.” It was September 2009, and General Motors was in danger of leading with its chin. Robert Lutz, then the company’s marketing chief, decided it was time to shock consumers. Lutz felt Americans weren’t giving GM enough credit for making cars that were as good as the Japanese competition. He was proud of his new Chevrolet Malibu, his Buick LaCrosse, and his Cadillac CTS. What could be gutsier than comparing Chevys to Toyotas and Buicks to Lexuses?
Car companies have been bragging about themselves and running down their rivals forever. But it’s harder to do when 61% of your company has been pawned to the federal government. GM Chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. agreed with Lutz anyway, and greenlighted the campaign created by McCann Erickson. And the GM ads that seemed so risky last summer came to seem prescient last month when Toyota Motor (TM) stumbled into the worst crisis in its history: more than 8 million cars recalled worldwide, plummeting sales, and a U.S. government investigation into whether the company should have moved faster to correct the mechanical problems of its automobiles.