What's good for General Motors may no longer be good for the USA. Hell, it might not even be good for Liechtenstein. Recently, a media brouhaha broke out between GM and the Los Angeles Times, specifically Pulitzer Prize winning automotive writer Dan Neil. It seems GM took a major exception to his review of the Pontiac G6 , known to you and I as the car that made a bunch of woman weep with orgasmic tongues on Oprah. Neil finds the G6 "entirely adequate," but thinks that adequate isn't good enough for a giant corporation stuck in neutral. And perhaps sliding into reverse if today's quarterly $1.1 billion loss is any indication. It's the worst posting since 1992, when GM flirted with bankruptcy. In his column, Neil called for heads to roll, specifically CEO Rick Wagoner, comparing him to the coach of a losing baseball team and saying, "it's time to sweep the dugout."
So how did GM respond? By yanking its advertising from the Los Angeles Times.
Let us consider this business decision for a moment. Dan Neil is a critic -- paid to criticize -- and a very good one to boot. There had never been a Pulitzer nomination for automotive writing prior to Neil, and he deservedly won for his unique look beyond what's under the hood to the role of the car in American culture. (He once penned a legendary column about "test-driving" the backseat of a Ford Expedition that expedited his departure from the Raleigh News & Observer.) The point being, Neil is a popular, high-profile journalist who passes judgments, both bad and good (and who makes the Corvette again?). This is a PR battle GM couldn't possibly win.
I haven't driven the G6 yet, so I can't comment on the car, but I can comment on the boneheaded play by a floundering corporation. With all of its other problems, why would GM choose to bring the scorn of auto enthusiasts upon itself? Even if Neil ripped GM at every turn it wouldn't be worth it, but he doesn't as evidenced by the Corvette review, so the charter member of the Big Three just comes across as petulant and petty. Why take an unnecessary loss in the court of public opinion? Let the cars -- not corporate spokesflacks -- speak for the company.
Or am I wrong here? Maybe GM should go quid pro quo with Neil if it truly believes he has crossed the line. Now, I've met Neil, I've even seen him in a kilt, but this is not simply standing up for my own kind. GM's decision to go into battle with a respected writer makes no sense to me. (Although perhaps the iconic auto manufacturer should be nervous, Neil wandered around Scotland with a claymore foaming at the mouth muttering about "cutting GM off at its knees.")
Bad press can be just that, bad press. Dan Neil's rant won't do a skosh of the public damage that pulling ad dollars will. Besides, what does GM have to worry about? Oprah herself gave away the Pontiac G6, so it must be a huge smash best-seller right...um, right...uh oh...
That's it! No more Pontiacs on Oprah!