GM slow to react to nasty ads

As part of contest, carmaker supplies ad-building tools online--but some people use them to slam company or protest Iraq war.

Greg Sandoval
Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
3 min read
General Motors did little in the way of damage control on Monday after a do-it-yourself ad campaign for a GM SUV was hijacked by critics of the company and thousands of negative ads flooded the Web.

As part of a partnership with the TV show "The Apprentice," GM launched a contest last month to promote the Chevy Tahoe SUV. The contest challenges viewers to create their own digital commercial about the SUV at Chevyapprentice.com. Entrants must choose from a range of video clips and sound tracks and write their own text to create their ad.

Over the weekend, hundreds of people used the Internet to circulate thousands of videos that charged GM with contributing to global warming, protested the war in Iraq or just demeaned the Tahoe's quality. Some videos also contained profanity or sexually explicit messages.

Click here to Play

Video: Viral marketing backfires
Ad busters hijack GM contest

Late Monday, GM announced that it would begin screening the ads for "offensive and inflammatory" content but would not remove material based solely on a "negative tone" toward the company.

The contest is a success as a marketing campaign, according to Melisa Tezanos, a GM spokeswoman. Consumers have submitted more than 21,000 ads and have e-mailed commercials over 40,000 times, she said. Chevyapprentice.com has generated 2.4 million page views, and the average visit to the site lasts more than 9 minutes. The company anticipated before launching the contest that it may see some negative ads, but Tezanos noted that more than 80 percent of the commercials depict the Tahoe in a favorable light.

"There are many different opinions and many different people, and we recognize that," Tezanos said.

The ads apparently began circulating early last week, according to some who saw them. On Saturday, hundreds were posted on a message board at DemocraticUnderground.com, a site created in 2001 and dedicated to "the exchange and dissemination of liberal and progressive ideas."

In one contest entry were the words "Yesterday's technology today," superimposed over a clip of engine pistons pumping. Another featured shots of the Tahoe zooming through snow, mountains and desert. Over the video appeared the words: "Global warming isn't a pretty SUV ad. It's a frightening reality."

"Viral marketing" is the current buzzword used by advertisers to describe the way a message can spread among Internet users.

Much has been written about attempts by corporations to tap into this phenomenon, but the GM contest is an example of how such efforts can backfire.

Contests that appeal to the public to come up with the best slogan or jingle have been around for decades. Companies asking for public opinion have always been aware that their products may not be popular with everyone.

"The issue here is that GM is providing a public display of the feedback versus keeping it in house," said Gordy Abel, vice president of marketing agency Carat Fusion. "An open community can see all responses. In my opinion (GM) needs to do a better job of screening these types of contests in the future to make sure the content complies with the rules before it is posted."

CNET News.com's Elinor Mills contributed to this report.