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General Motors’ Wildest Dream

Automaker was a big winner in Winfrey’s giveaway 1/23/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern

When Oprah Winfrey Show staffers were kicking around ideas that would have impact for the show’s season premiere last September, all they had to work with was a theme: “Wildest Dreams Come True With Oprah.” But when General Motors approached them with the idea of a car giveaway, Winfrey’s team knew they had a match.

Oprah’s Big Spenders
Top advertisers January-October 2004
(in millions)
SOURCE: TNS Media Intelligence
Altria Group Inc. $4,063.6
Procter & Gamble Co. $3,279.3
Walt Disney Co. $2,743.6
Yum Brands Inc. $2,675.8
LA Weight Loss Medical Group $2,616.2
Time Warner Inc. $1,778.0
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. $1,763.2
Toyota Motor Corp. Dealer Assn. $1,610.5
Empire Today Carpet Store $1,583.8
Toyota Motor Corp. $1,481.9

“It was just a little idea that got bigger,” says Pontiac Marketing Director Mark-Hans Richer. “I still feel I’m watching it like a spectator, observing it as a cultural event. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Mary Henige, Pontiac-GMC communications director, agrees. She was part of the Richer team, along with Mary Kubitskey, Pontiac ad manager, and agency partners Vigilante and GM Mediaworks.

According to incomplete results, 2004 was a super year for Winfrey. Year-to-date advertising revenues for Oprah (January-October 2004) total $172 million, up 16% over 2003. Pontiac was just the cherry on the top.

Giving away 276 Pontiac G6 cars to car-deprived audience members (a $7 million giveaway) resulted in the public relations department’s bonanza.

Footage of leaping, screaming and delirious audience members opening gift boxes containing car keys was shown worldwide; the stunt resulted in more than 600 TV news stories. Internet users, eager to learn more, moved the words “Oprah” and “Pontiac G6” into Yahoo and Google’s top 10 most requested search terms.

The Wall Street Journal named the giveaway among the “Top Five Marketing Events of 2004.” TV Guide called it the No. 1 TV moment of the year, and media tracker VMS cited it as the largest domestic media coverage of an auto story ever.

“We got global coverage,” says Henige. “We had stories running in Australia, Ireland, Pakistan, India, Russia. It completely exceeded my expectations.”

Pontiac sold more than 16,000 G6 cars in 2004 and Winfrey helped. “We definitely expect it to be the best-selling Pontiac in 2005,” Richter said.

Pontiac planned to introduce the G6 earlier in the year and had done some pre-launch activity during the Summer Olympics. “But what marketer doesn’t want to do something with Oprah?” asks Richer. The GM brand wanted to get rapid awareness of both the new car and the new car name. “We knew it had to be something big enough to interest Oprah’s team,” says Richer.

“A one-car give-away mutated into the ultimate—giving a car away to everyone in the audience.”

GM gambled two ways: Cars generally are not major advertisers on Winfrey’s show, and new-car launches can be disastrous on their own. (Think Edsel.)

“I wanted to introduce a car that day that no one knew existed,” Richer says, “but I feared if we did it halfway—say, just a single car—one of our competitors could come back on another show and trump us. We got caught up in the giving moments that happen with Oprah. They were as excited as we were.”

Is the G6 now branded as “Oprah’s Car”?

“I’ve heard people say that,” Richer says. But he insists G6 is not perceived as a “woman’s car.”

“We did a lot of research after the show, and we found an equally powerful lift in persuasion among males and females,” he adds. “In fact, men were slightly more aware of the car after the promotion, with higher-income consumers the most aware and the most positively persuaded.”

While GM has made “fairly significant” buys on Oprah, according to media buyers familiar with syndication sales, automakers in general tend to target sports and news—and their largely male viewers—especially when debuting a new car model. Could that be changing?

According to TNS Media Intelligence, hardly any automotive buys have made it into the top-10-spenders list on the Winfrey show over the past five years. Indeed, GM made the list in 2000, but no car makers were cited in 2001, 2002 and 2003 until Toyota joined the list in 2004. In that period of time, top advertisers on the show tended to be a “who’s who” of package goods, pharmaceutical, financial and retail (including Altria Group, Procter & Gamble, Yum Brands, GE, Time Warner, Walt Disney, Pfizer and Sony).

Industry insiders say a national spot on Winfrey’s show can run to $75,000. The show is still selling out, reportedly, after 20 years. Can the power of Oprah move the gender needle among car makers?

“Just today, The Ellen Degeneres Show did a promotion with Toyota to benefit Tsunami Relief,” noted Syndicated Network Television Association President Mitch Burg last week. “The Oprah promotion proves automotive and syndication are a win-win combination, and the proof is that it’s triggering other creative partnerships.”

November