GM Tells College Students to be Ashamed of Biking to Class

Marketing campaigns are usually developed after research and input from the target audience, often spanning weeks and costing tens of thousands of dollars. Yet, GM still launched an ad campaign that scorned biking and encouraged college students to spend thousands of dollars on a new car. Immediate, pervasive and sweeping outrage caused GM to quickly pull the campaign, but the fact that they paid for and promoted it in the first place shows a company who targets consumers who largely cannot afford a new car, ignores obvious and well-documented trends and data, and denigrates a physically beneficial, economically responsible, and climate-friendly form of transportation.

An appalled UCLA professor told Bike Portland, “Not only has GM violated the norms of decency with the use of this crudity in a student newspaper, UCLA’s Daily Bruin, it has violated the decency and courtesy appropriate of a debtor. GM, the company that required us taxpayers to bail it out in 2009, is now biting the young people who bear and will bear the environment and health damage of its gas swilling ways.”

GM withdrew the ad campaign after the online furor, saying, “The content of the ad was developed with college students and was meant to be a bit cheeky and humorous and not meant to offend anybody. We have gotten feedback and we are listening and there are changes underway. They will be taking the bicycle ad out of the rotation…. We respect bikers and many of us here are cyclists.”

GM ignored that fact that biking is growing in popularity, bike sharing programs are on the rise, obesity rates in the U.S. are high, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest in the world, college tuition continues to increase while state and federal aid is declining, many campuses have a chronic lack of parking spaces, gas prices are high, insurance rates for drivers 18-25 are very expensive, and jobs after graduation are scarce.

Yet they still preyed specifically on this demographic. Some college students can afford a new car, and maybe even some recent grads who were lucky enough to find a job in these tough times, but that percentage is most likely quite small. The best case scenario is that students are investing tens of thousands of dollars in an education that may or may not result in employment, and the worst case scenario is that they are already borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to invest in an education that may or may not result in employment. In either case, more debt is not what most college students or even recent grads should shoulder.

It might have been slightly more acceptable if GM had marketed it as a break on its less-expensive, extremely fuel-efficient cars for recent grads only (not current students) who can no longer pedal to class and need transportation since they got a job in a place where there isn’t any public transportation or their commute isn’t bikable. Unfortunately there are still many places that fall into this category. But GM didn’t choose to go that route. The new, smaller, less-expensive, fuel-efficient Sonic is featured in the ad, but so is, inexplicably, the full-sized, much less fuel-efficient Sierra truck priced between $21,000 and $44,000.

Attempted humor is the fallback of every company (commentator, comedian, politician, etc.) who spouts something offensive and is called out on it. It’s a tired excuse that no one really buys. It says a lot that none of the issues above gave the company pause when it decided to invest in this campaign. If GM thought it was a good idea to support a sales effort that tells people to “stop pedaling…start driving,” it makes the company’s green efforts seem pretty shallow.

image: Bike Portland

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

2 responses

  1. Great piece, Andrea.. and I definitely agree. The one thing we should be giving GM credit for, in this social media, 24/7, world is that they did seem to respond to the criticism pretty quickly. It may have been a tough lesson for them, but GM will likely be much more careful in designing future campaigns – and in figuring out how their products can somehow come into line with the bigger sustainability movement. Cars aren’t going away anytime soon (though many of us really try to limit our driving), so.. can GM really start to up the ante on fuel efficient, smaller, etc… vehicles, or… who knows? Embarrassment could help nudge innovation!

    1. Thanks Andrea. Yes, GM did respond quickly to criticism and have addressed many comments on their Facebook page and on Twitter. Being from Michigan, I want companies here to succeed, so I hope this lesson helps them design better campaigns and be more in tune with what’s happening in the rest of the country and the world before taking a tack like this. I think there are many ways that they could design a campaign that works with the idea of less driving. There is another post on Triple Pundit right now about their support for a carpooling/carsharing program, so I was surprised they would also have an anti-bike campaign like this. It will be interesting to see what they do next.

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