'Stop pedaling… start driving'

General Motors has a new program aimed at college students, hoping to inspire them to buy GM cars with a “college discount.”

The “Reality Sucks” advertisement has all the subtly of a commercial for Axe Body Spray — and apparently is aimed at the same insecure demographic.

Just in case the ad is too subtle, I’ve added some handy speech bubbles.

GM College Program
Screenshot: http://www.facebook.com/gmcollegeprogram

And the League of American Bicyclists is shocked, shocked to find that marketing is going on in here!

In one of the more remarkably ill-conceived car ad campaigns of all time, good corporate citizen GM is heading to campus to actively stop you from riding a bike by trying to make it look like it sucks.


In case you were wondering, GM has a fine-sounding corporate responsibility statement – carefully crafted by the best in the business, I’m sure. One sample quote: “As a responsible corporate citizen, General Motors is dedicated to protecting human health, natural resources and the global environment.”   http://www.gm.com/vision/our_vision.html

And if you wanted to send a quick note to Chevrolet or GMC, there are instructions on how to do that.

The best responses to this GM campaign are on the Facebook wall for this college program, which seem to be universally negative.

Here is a selection:

GM College Program Facebook
Screenshot: http://www.facebook.com/gmcollegeprogram

The best comment I’ve seen is this one:

Make crap cars – alienate smart car buyers
Make anticyclist ad – alienate almost everyone
No buyers, no sales, bankruptcy
Reality sucks, GM, doesn’t it?

There’s now even an online petition to get GM to stop this ad campaign.

But the reality that sucks is the reality that we still live in a society where vehicle ownership is considered by many people to be obligatory. In this milieu, not owning an internal-combustion vehicle is a social liability. GM is merely leveraging this social reality. As much as anyone, I’m hoping this marketing ploy will backfire.

But I fear that this backlash will hardly register to GM.

The people who can change this sucky reality are those of us who commute by bike — to school, to work, to the store — and by doing so, make that social liability shrink and wither into insignificance.

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17 thoughts on “'Stop pedaling… start driving'”

  1. Ted Johnson says:

    GM has decided to pull the ad from rotation — but leaves behind the most amazing wall on Facebook for bike comments: http://ow.ly/6VqWY

  2. Keith here, long time listener, first time caller, er, I have been a full time bike commuter since Feb ’10, and I have to reveal that this GM ad campaign is probably all my fault.

    You see, the average car driver feels very insecure when in the presence of the higher being that is a bike commuter, (they don’t know I lost my license as the result of a DUI so I can be as smug as necessary), and this ad campaign is just an attempt to bolster the inner weakness of the full time car driver, as Ted pointed out above.

    I have recently been the victim of this “internal combustion” discrimination when I was denied entry to a wilderness preserve, Ted mentioned it here weeks ago, but as anyone who has stepped foot inside my domicile can profess, I internally combust plenty of gas.

    I have to take the blame for the backlash because while I am commuting around town I will often have to stop at intersections and I will catch motorists “making eyes” at me and I will do that gesture towards them where I point to my 2 eyes with my index and middle fingers and then I will point my index and middle fingers towards their eyes to let them know, “I’m watching you, Bud.”

    Sometimes I get “tude” from the drivers so I’ll drop my pants and just point at my fully flexed quads, or if I’m feeling really combative I’ll turn around and flex my calves, (this causes actual sparks to fly), and while I cannot be certain I am fairly confident that I’ve made some people soil themselves. In the future I’ll try to tone my behavior down.


  3. Jaime Roberto says:

    Oh boo hoo. They are in the business of selling cars. And besides it’s nearly impossible to get busy in the back seat of your bike, and that’s what the college students are thinking about.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Yeah, see, I just KNEW this site was oriented hippiecommieliberal!

    Well, when I graduated college I made up for ALL’a youse SOCIALISTS: I bought a BRAND NEW Chevy 4×4 Pickup! Yee. Hah.

    In the first twelve months it broke down three times on me, but, heck that’s what WARRANTIES are for, right? Then, at about three years and 30K miles (and just before we got rid of it), I had to spend around six hours on the floor of my father-in-law’s garage replacing the seal between the transfer case and the transmission; simultaneously impressing the heck out of my father-in-law with my mechanical abilities and embarrassing the heck out of my mother-in-law and Mrs. Cat with my extensive collection of cuss words.

    However, being the Green Conservative that you all know me to be, a while back I sez to Mrs. Cat I sez “Hey, Ma, maybe we should look into that new Chevy Volt.”

    Without missing a beat, Mrs. Cat sez to me she sez “Hey, Pa, maybe we should look into DIVORCE LAWYERS.”

    Leave to the women to keep us from waving the flag, eh?

  5. I never had sex in the back of a car while in college, but I did bend a girl over the hood of my Ford Ranger, (high quality mini-truck, why are you laughing). Different auto maker, let’s save it for another day-another discussion.

  6. Gene @ BU says:

    I fear the League of American Bicyclists is as clueless as GM when it comes to reaching the young. The good news is the university student of today is challenging the notions of “success” and the values of their parents generation. GM is lost on them as is the concept that a car is a status symbol. This generation places value on social networks, friendships, and a sense of belonging. GM nor the LAB has an idea how to tap into their value system which is bad news for both GM and the LAB.

  7. Absolutely Gene, you get it, they don’t.

    I just realized as I was typing those words that I am often very sarcastic so I want to make it clear that I am not being sarcastic in this particular comment.

    Things have changed in relation to the media, and they continue to change, so just realize that media is evolving ever towards a conversational approach, as opposed to a “We are the media and we will tell you what is going on,” approach.

    Get engaged and be a part of the conversation, (even if you want to be a smart-ass).

  8. Karen says:

    Such is the nature of advertising. Auto makers are going to try and buying their products look cool. In that GM has never really struck me a cool, I’m not surprised that their campaign laid a giant egg.

    Eventually, some other auto maker will come up with a campaign that is more appealing to young people. Maybe Kia or VW?

    The League of American Bicyclists and other advocacy groups should spend their energies looking at their own messaging. Some of what I see focuses on green issues, which, though worthy, have limited sustained appeal. Some group (can’t remember which one) made a frightfully dull video for bike to work week about safety tips for the new cyclists and avoiding the inherent dangers of sharing the road. Boring! The videos that Stacey Moses posted last week were so much more fun to watch. I couldn’t wait to jump on my bike after watching them.

    As much as I enjoy biking as transport, I know that I don’t represent the average consumer, and even I needed more of incentive to get in the saddle than my carbon footprint. Websites like (dare I write it) Copenhagen Cycle Chic presented cycling in a manner that has much more long-term appeal. The Euro fantasy provided by Michal Colville Andersen kept me pedaling through the dips and humps and now I’ve graduated to CoB! Retail blogs like Public Bikes do a great job of showing bicycling’s sex appeal (it can’t be denied that this is important) in a manner that is attainable for almost anyone. CoB provides a lot of “how to’s”, practical product reviews and thoughtful commentary without preaching or going down the tired old road of “you have to do it this way or you’re not a real cyclist”.

  9. mombrakesforbikes says:

    I talked to a friend earlier about how her son used his student loans to buy a BMW. (Yes, seriously, you can do this.) The kid believed that with his superior GPA and degree in Business Administration, he’d find a job as soon as he hopped off the stage from his graduation ceremony, and besides, he’d scored such a deal on the Beamer! But that was in 2008: the economy collapsed in the meantime, and suddenly he was $50,000 in debt, with no way of paying any of it back. Since then, the only job he’s been able to find is stocking the shelves at the local Whole Foods for minimum wage. The Beamer has broken down twice since he bought it, and both times the repairs cost him over a thousand dollars. Luckily his dad was able to loan him the money, but the kid is now cursing the day he bought that car.

    But it makes me wonder what the hell are they teaching kids in college nowadays. One of the things the kids at #OccupyWallStreet are demanding is student loan relief: one hopes none of them was so stupid as to plunge themselves deeper into debt by buying a shiny new GM vehicle.

  10. Gene @ BU says:


    I think your VW comment is a winner.


    Here is a bike friendly VW ad aimed at the under 30 demographic. The pitch is to the “active transportation consumer” which is a marketing life style phrase for people who walk, bike, roller blade … and drive. The car fits in with an active life style.

    A more intelligent and insightful message than GM’s.

  11. GM, and automakers generally, must exist in a parallel universe to run an add like this. They are marketing to college students who 1) see bikes as cool and 2) are typically in debt up to their ears with bleak job prospects. Why isn’t GM, as the benefactor of a taxpayer funded bailout, more sensitive to “Occupy Wall Street” outrage over corporate greed? My only conclusion is that GM culture that came up with this “cheeky” add is exceedingly dullwitted.

  12. Patrick Walker says:

    Hey I’m glad you liked what I posted on the GM site. Credit to whomever originally took the picture of the billboard, and to the person who paid to put that on the billboard!

    It was amazing to see their twitter stream afterwards, apologizing left and right, claiming they are in the process of making changes to the campaign.

  13. Josh Lipton says:

    Posted this at the GM College Program FB Page and figured I should add it in here as well:

    I can’t help but have this feeling that GM saw this coming and we’re in fact banking on the cycling community helping send this advertising program viral. We’re playing right into their hands. GM knows that the cycling community would lash out against them and with a program like this must figure all press is good press. Good job GM with your clever marketing campaign.

    But either way, I’m glad that GM feels threatened by the increasing number of cyclists. Its great that they want to lash out against us and thereby bring us more into the transportation conversation. The all press is good press thing goes both ways.

  14. Matt Waters says:

    Amazing… I mean really. it was just a few hours ago I ran across this headline: “Ford develops its first electric bicycle” posted on Techi.com. I was so psyched up by this I put a link and an FYI on my Blog. It read FYI – I just ran across this & felt compelled to re-post it. Not because it ……. BLAH… BLAH …. BLAH …..

    No …… It’s because when a major transportation industry manufacturer outside of the bicycle industry makes this kind of effort I feel that perhaps this time around e-bikes are here to stay.

    Well I’m glad I didn’t get all warm & fuzzy about the “automotive industry”

  15. Karen says:

    Actually, I had that exact car (before we sold it to go down to one car). VW’s marketing sucks me in everytime. The bike in this ad is exactly what I would expect. Life is about more than a car.

  16. Anonymous1 says:

    I wish I got to this post sooner.To Gene@BU. I have some thoughts on your statement:

    The good news is the university student of today is challenging the notions of “success” and the values of their parents generation. GM is lost on them as is the concept that a car is a status symbol. This generation places value on social networks, friendships, and a sense of belonging.”

    If that was the case, in the matter you’re trying to portray, then a lot of these university students wouldn’t be in university, especially considering the student debt crisis. They’re spending this money and time hoping it will pay off. I don’t think friendships and social network what they are seeking. FaceBook is free and open to the public.

    But I will like to focus on the “sense of belonging” part. Things haven’t changed that much. This belonging still lies in being affluent. There are some particars in the manner. Not too many people desire a bike, so it doesn’t matter how much you spend on it; it’s still a bike with a low status symbol. Besides young people want things fast and without effort and with the possibilty of having friends along like with a car.

    Gene I assume you’re a college student as well at “BU”, and maybe things are different on your campus and your hometown community. But in my big city hometown and rural campus community, I see what I describe above. Yesterday I was just telling my mom how I see so many bikes chained on the bikes racks across campus, but that doesn’t equal the amount of people I see riding. Now unless they’re riding them somewhere else and I miss the loading and unloading of these bikes OR they’re just not riding them at all. But it probably doesn’t matter cause I’m looking at the parking lot, and these bike owners probably own cars, thus not using their bikes for transportation purposes other than getting from the dorms to class which I hardly see them doing.

  17. Joel says:

    If I had unlimited resources, yes, I would probably buy a car and have a personal trainer and dietician to keep my body in Hollywood shape. Better yet, I would have a chauffeur drive me so I could concentrate on keeping track of my millions (or billions).

    Then reality sets in, I am income challenged, month to month expenses rarely go down and in most cases only go up. The income is stagnate and will most likely not keep up with the increasing expenses. I have a daughter in college and I want to help her as much as possible.

    I am fifty-one and on the edge of getting rid of one car of two if I can consistently bicycle into the bus station for the next few months (I am currently on month two of parking my commuter vehicle as much as possible). The savings in insurance, registration, and maintenance add up. I figure that I can save about $400 dollars per month. That does not seem like a big deal to most people but that is like giving myself a $600 per month raise because I will will pay about $100 out of $300 in deductions by the time the money wonders from my employer to me.

    GM’s commercial does not offend me. Lord knows, I look a little geeky riding my 42lb cheapo commuter bike with the blinking red rear lights, pencil beam front headlight,and a backpack on a cold morning in the dark.

    Someone hear stated that college students today have a different perception of what is important due to when they are growing up. I told my daughter that I was trying to bicycle to the bus stop so I could be healthier, save a little money, and live longer in her life. I expected her to give me grief and be embarrassed about how “I am too old for that.” She was excited and genuinely impressed that I cared enough about my health to give it a try. She is a serious hobby photographer and stated that she wanted to take some pictures of me riding my bike to work to show her friends. She is proud that I am trying my best to make a difference.

    No, I am not too worried about GM’s little dig. I think my college daughter is smart enough to see through the fog of advertising and knows what is important.

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