Chairman Serving As Spokesman Has Potential Risks, Rewards

Lee Iacocca became the face of Chrysler when it was going through a very difficult financial time. Having lived in Michigan during that period, I still remember the TV ads with Mr. Iacocca confidently saying, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

He was a natural salesman who knew the automotive industry inside out, and projected confidence in his company and its products. He also was a well known and respected leader. As a result, Mr. Iacocca was able to gain the public’s confidence and save his company from bankruptcy.

Now General Motors is taking a similar approach with its new chairman, Ed Whitacre, pitching the company’s “May the best car win” campaign, which offers buyers a 60-day money back guarantee.

Mr. Whitacre, who came from AT&T, is not as well known as Mr. Iacoccas was in his day, nor does he have the same level of credibility in the auto industry. And while GM says the ads have been received positively, some in the ad world are not so sure about the strategy.

According to an Associated Press article on MSNBC.com, “Some even say the ad starring the 67-year-old Whitacre hurts the Detroit automaker’s efforts to freshen up its image and woo younger buyers,” adding, “Commenters on Twitter aren’t having quite as rosy a reaction, saying he’s too old, too stiff and his presence in the ads doesn’t make them want to buy GM cars.”

Selecting the right person to become the face of a company is one of the most important decisions advertising and PR executives make. Will people trust an unknown such as Mr. Whitacre? GM will soon find out.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

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