Double Jeopardy for Pontiac

December 11, 2005
On the popular TV game show "Jeopardy," contestants are supposed to respond to clues with a question. But we can assure you that "What is Toyota?" was not the right answer to one particular puzzle presented by host Alek Trebek the other day. Nor was Mercury, nor Buick. But that was as close as the three contestants could come, reports the Detroit News, when shown a picture of the Aztek, and given the clue, "The GM brand whose model lineup includes Aztek and Grand Prix."

In case you've forgotten yourself, the correct question, for $200, would have been, "What is Pontiac?" Actually, that's a very good question, and not just in the "Jeopardy" studios. There was a time when the General Motors division was one of the nation's best-known. But after a series of wrong-headed management decisions, marketing mistakes and disastrous products - such as the Aztek - Pontiac's name recognition is down to near zero if Trebek's three contestants are any indication. Now, let's face it, when you get in front of the TV cameras, with those hot lights and a live audience baiting you, it's not unusual to make some silly mistakes. But we'd be willing to bet that you could ask the very same question on the streets of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, and stump a lot of otherwise well-informed folks.

Last April, GM's car czar Bob Lutz referred to Pontiac and Buick as "damaged brands." (At least one of the "Jeopardy" contestants recalled the latter division's name, if not its lineup.) GM's PR machine quickly tried to spin a different meaning to Lutz's candid comments. Yet there's no question that at senior meetings, the automaker has been giving serious thought to Pontiac's future. But it wouldn't be easy to send Pontiac off to the scrapheap, as the demise of Oldsmobile proved. It took years to phase out that other, troubled brand, and cost billions, much of it handed out to Olds dealers to cover their losses. Cutting Pontiac would cost easily as much, and it would also complicate matters in showrooms that pair the division with GMC, the much more successful light truck nameplate.

Still, Pontiac can't just be allowed to stumble along. With its minuscule name recognition, this brand truly is in jeopardy. As GM continues to cut its way to survival, one can only wonder if the next mention on that popular TV game show will be "brands that General Motors couldn't revive."

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