Let's say you're the largest U.S. automaker, and you have a little problem.
You're building cars that get good reviews for features, fit, finish, and fuel economy, but half the world still thinks you build lousy cars like you used to, and the other half shuns you as "Government Motors" due to a little bankruptcy problem you had.
So how do you change hearts and minds?
You do your damnedest, in the worlds of an apocryphal car salesman, to put "butts in seats" and let ordinary people experience your cars by driving them.
For free. With no sales pressure.
That's exactly what General Motors has been doing in its "Main Street in Motion" marketing events, traveling all over the country this summer.
The company brings 130 or so cars to stadium parking lots, invites drivers, car buyers, and their families, and lets everyone drive whatever they want. There are Xbox 360 games to distract the kids if they get bored, and a raft of car seats of different sizes--complete with trained installers.
Each of the 24 events attracts about 4,000 customers, largely invited through radio and newspaper ads. And the average attendee drives five cars--including those from competitors, which GM includes too.
GM gave journalists a preview of the event held the weekend before last at Citi Field in Queens, New York (that would be the home of the New York Mets, if you follow baseball).
The 1.5 million square feet of asphalt was neatly segmented into brand and vehicle-type driving areas, with the regular rumble of an elevated subway train in the background.
Three of the company's four surviving brands--Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC--each had their own pavilion and driving courses. (Luxury brand Cadillac does its own, more focused marketing, and isn't a part of "Main Street in Motion".)
The Chevy area was the largest, since it has by far the largest array of cars and trucks. The entire range, from the compact 2011 Cruze up to the Suburban full-size sport utility vehicle, was available to drive.
Chevrolet offered four separate drive courses: One each for cars, crossover utilities, trucks and sport utilities, and its pair of performance cars.
Some of the longest lines were for drives in the Camaro and Corvette sports cars. For those (many) attendees eager to drive a sports car they might have no hope of buying, Chevrolet asked that they drive some other GM vehicle first.
The 2011 Volt extended-range electric car proved extremely popular, due to major media coverage of Chevy's new and award-winning plug-in hatchback. It too had its own driving area.
Because Volt production will be very limited at least through 2012, Chevy asked that Volt test drivers first drive the similarly sized Cruze sedan.
Buick's pavilion focused on its luxury features and high levels of equipment, with a single course for its cars and crossover.
The GMC drive options included its crossovers, but largely featured the capabilities of its pickup trucks--some of them in the stadium lot of a size rarely seen in the more crowded precincts of the 387-year-old city.
Do stadium drive events actually work to change perceptions of GM's cars?