"We had very constructive conversations with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We listened to their concerns and we are going to edit the ad," said John McDonald, GM sales and marketing spokesperson. "We are going to take out the footage of the robot leaping from the bridge."
The spot from Deutsch/L.A. uses the tagline: "Obsessed with quality." In it, the robot gets fired for dropping a bolt on the assembly line, takes a succession of lesser jobs, and eventually kills itself. The robot then wakes to realize it was all a dream.
Early last week, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention protested that the ad was insensitive to people who have lost someone to suicide by suggesting that is the answer to a mistake or problem. At that point, GM responded that it would not pull the ad.
Then the ad became late-night fodder on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," with Stewart showing an alternative ending in which the robot shoots itself, spraying a wall with black grease and pieces of metal. Stewart used the ad to point out that GM is not laying off 35,000 robots.
Automotive advertisers are not strangers to such criticism. Chrysler Group has been criticized several times in the past for suggestive ads by its shop, BBDO, and for then-marketing director Julie Roehm's "Lingerie Bowl" gambit.
General Motors pulled a Corvette ad directed by Guy Ritchie because it depicted a pair of children taking wild rides in the car. Even Toyota got into hot water some years back for a racially contentious postcard campaign for its RAV4.
But the heat apparently got to be too much for GM. On Friday, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) issued a statement from its executive director Michael Fitzpatrick, and a letter to GM asserting that GM regards depression, obsessive/compulsive behavior, and suicide "As a cute, advertising gimmick. What does it say about the company's concern for public health?"
GM had plans to air the spot in its original condition during this month's broadcast of the Academy Awards, another highly watched TV event sometimes dubbed the Super Bowl for women.
"We saw that as a challenge," said a NAMI spokesperson.
NAMI, the Suicide Prevention Action Network, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Glendon Association, and the American Association of Suicidology coordinated their efforts, with letters to GM and regional/grassroots efforts, and a flurry of releases.
Daniel Gorrell, president of auto market consultancy Gorrell Group, said that a little bad PR can be good if for no other reason than awareness-building. The real issue--as far as potential customers is concerned--is less about goodwill than relevance.
"Does [the ad] speak to the brand? Is GM speaking to the positioning it needs to convey: namely reassurance about their quality and the ownership experience? Ultimately, consumers may think the critics are silly, but more important is whether they respond to the ad," Gorrell said.
Volkswagen, for instance, recently took some heat for "Safety Happens," an ad campaign via Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which took the highly unusual tactic of showing a Jetta with real passengers in a collision.
GM wasn't the first marketer to respond to post-game ad critiques. Masterfoods pulled the plug on its Super Bowl spot for Snickers featuring two mechanics who accidentally kiss, then pull out their chest hair to prove their masculinity. The spot drew criticism that it was homophobic.