by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

As the domestic U.S. automakers present their plans for winning a $34 billion aid package to Congress, the lawmakers should be aware of an ugly fact:

The three companies are on track to waste over $6 billion on advertising this year alone. The totals flushed down the toilet in support of marketing and "the brands" are probably far greater.

So any bailout deal should include the wholesale firing of the marketers at the companies. Every one of them. Then get rid of anybody at the companies who directly signed off on the nonsense. And then get to the agencies that have so willingly helped them squander their cash, and ban them from ever doing so again.

It's not that they haven't been utterly creative and dedicated in their efforts. There hasn't been a cutting-edge experiment in new, social, or otherwise non-traditional media that one or more of the companies hasn't tried (usually over, and over, and over again). They've translated their brands into the lingua franca of viral videos, user-generated content, virtual worlds, and Twitter banter. Their initiatives have explored every new channel, from screens at movie theaters, to those on mobile phones.

The traditional side hasn't been neglected, either: glossy imagery, repurposed Boomer-era music, and sly sexual innuendo have complemented the tried-and-true set-ups of cars going, really, really fast down long, winding roads. Creative slogans have abounded. There's probably never been prettier, more brand-perfect marketing year than the one that's just about finished.

And it has accomplished absolutely nothing. Nobody thinks anything different about the Big Three brands and, if they do, they're certainly not buying more vehicles because of it.

You can cite concerns about the economy and difficulties in getting auto loans, but those factors are mitigating, not central. The return on the branding coming out of Detroit -- measured by sales, which is the only brand metric that really matters, in the end -- has been falling for quite a few years now. The market is putting the hurt on the domestic automakers now, but what’s really hurting them is another ugly fact:

They're actually already making far better vehicles, but nobody knows or believes it yet. Quality is up, as is fuel-efficiency. Dealers are smarter, and ever-more committed to keeping customers. The vehicles just drive better ("U.S. autos have driveability"). 

And yet the marketers will have spent $6 billion this year to keep those facts secret. They spent more to do so last year.

Beyond any failures of leadership when it comes to designing cars or putting the screws to the unions, this inability to communicate is Detroit's most egregious problem. For all of the money and intelligence at their disposal, they can't engage with the consuming public in real, credible, authentic, sustainable, and purchase motivating ways.

And there's no reason believe they'll figure it out if and when Congress hands the companies another $34 billion. The worst possible case would be that the bailout actually enables substantive improvements in the operations of these compaanies, and then the brand marketers go waste many more billions failing to communicate them. How can extraordinary times be met with "business as usual” marketing?

So, like I said, any government deal should include the wholesale revamping of the branding and communications functions. Lockout the auto marketers.

It's time to replace some dim bulbs.

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