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General Motors has a problem. Not its recent bailout. Or its endless personnel shakeups. Or even the public's lingering doubts about GM production quality.
No, GM has a problem with its marketing, and it's very, very serious.
When GM entered bankruptcy court last summer for its quickie death/resurrection, Fritz Henderson brought marketing man Bob Lutz back into the fold. We were hoping for some younger blood, but whatever: Lutz acknowledged that the company's various marketing departments had dropped the ball in recent years. He vowed to turn things around, and with his gravelly voice and his Hannibal-from-A-Team bearing, we believed him.
Unfortunately, our optimism didn't linger very long. Since GM's turnaround, ad agencies have been fired and hired -- including Publicis, which recently had a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am relationship with Chevrolet. Within months, Lutz was canned, or "reassigned", as CEO Ed Whitacre called it. And now we've learned that back in September 2009, while Lutz was still a bigwig, someone decided to use an image of Albert Einstein in an ad for the GMC Terrain without getting proper clearance.
The ad at left was created by GMC's ad agency, Leo Burnett. It's a little cliched -- okay, a lot cliched -- but it gets the point across quickly, and since it was designed to run in People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue...well, it's not surprising that Burnett set the bar a little low.
But apart from creative quality, there's a bigger problem, and that's that Hebrew University of Jerusalem owns the licensing rights to Albert Einstein's image. And Hebrew University says that GM didn't secure the rights to use Einstein's face atop a weirdly color-saturated body that looks more like Marky Mark's, which explains why the university is now suing GM for over $75,000 in damages, plus unspecified penalties. According to a university lawyer:
"The tattooed, shirtless image of Dr. Einstein with his underpants on display is not consummate with and causes injury to (the university's) carefully guarded rights in the image and likeness of the famous scientist, political activist, and humanitarian."
Now, the issue of using personal images -- especially celebrity images -- is often a fuzzy one, and since most of us at TCC aren't lawyers, we won't delve into intricacies. (Though if you're interested, there's a nice overview of some of the issues over here.) What we know for certain is that Einstein willed his publicity rights to Hebrew University prior to his death inn 1955, and that neither GM nor Leo Burnett secured those rights before going to press.
For its part, GM insists that it did acquire the rights to Einstein's image, and that it did so from a "reputable firm". That may be, but surely a company as large as GM has systems in place to check its contractors' work, doesn't it? Could Bob himself have let this ball drop?
To be fair, we have seen a couple of interesting developments on GM's marketing front. The company's experimentation with geolocation apps at South By Southwest was very interesting. Cadillac's placement on the Cool Hunting app for the iPad was equally impressive. And Chevrolet's baseball app is one of the best we've seen. But for every step forward GM's many marketing departments make, it seems like they make one and a half steps back.
Mr. Whitacre, if you're reading this, please know: we like you guys, but some of your people need to get their head in the game.