Should GM and Citi CEOs Take To The Airwaves?


With consumer confidence low, and populist sentiment high, brands that received a large federal bailout are facing an unwelcoming return to the market place. GM and Citi have been particular personae non gratae to consumers. This week, both fallen titans signalled their plans to reform their image and resuscitate their brands.

Two months after declaring bankruptcy, GM has rolled out a new ad campaign featuring government-appointed chairman Ed Whitacre. In a 60-second spot, Whitacre declares the brand revived, and goes so far as to brag, “We win.” The ad shows Whitacre walking through what looks to be GM research and development, shiny new cars decorating the scenery. Whitacre invites consumers to test a new GM model — though none are shown — and promises them a 60-day-money-back guarantee if not fully satisfied.

Citigroup, yet to return its bailout funds, is quietly preparing its own ad campaign to be introduced as soon as next month. Though few details are known, insiders expect Citi to focus on the company’s positive steps over the past year, like revising customers’ mortgage terms. The ads will also strive to defend the reputation of CEO Vikram Pandit, though it’s unclear whether the chief executive will face the cameras directly like GM’s Whitacre.[more]

These brands seem to be taking a gamble by personalizing their product with the very leaders the public holds responsible for their failure. Consumers may dismiss the ads as just more lies and empty promises. On the other hand, they may find the sight of executives stepping up to the plate a refreshing act of responsibility.

Business Insider’s John Carney (no fan of Citi’s past campaigns) is skeptical. He tells brandchannel, “Neither Whitacre or Pandit is Dave Thomas” (the late Wendy’s chief and long-running star of Wendy’s ad campaigns). “Ad agencies can do a real disservice to clients by pitching CEO ads. It’s an easy way to land a client, because it’s very flattering to the CEO. And most CEOs have big enough egos that they cannot imagine appearing in the ads might be a bad idea. They just think the agency is brilliant for recognizing their own brilliance.”

The thinking that led these brands into the red appears to be guiding their brand reform. GM and Citigroup have both made the same miscalculation: Consumers are looking for action, not words. GM should spotlight their fleet of competitive vehicles in advertisements. Instead, they’re undermining the quality of their product by placing the spotlight on their 60-day-money-back guarantee. Whereas Citigroup, in trying to explain why they have yet to pay back bailout funds, essentially misuses their bailout funds for an ad campaign.