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Electric Car Owner Spots GM Some Ads

May 22, 1998|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's not unusual for zealous owners of General Motors' electric cars to pitch the auto maker on ways to promote its EV1. One actress developed a script that likened the car's rounded contours to a woman's body. A Hollywood production company owner offered several plot lines and free use of his company's equipment.

But Marvin Rush has gone where no EV1 enthusiast has gone before. Concerned that GM isn't doing enough to promote the car in the 18 months it has been on the market, Rush, a cinematographer on "Star Trek Voyager," spent $20,000 to produce and air four unauthorized radio commercials touting the EV1.

The spots initially sent shock waves through GM, an image-conscious company known for testing its commercials extensively before putting them on the air. But rather than hit Rush with a cease-and-desist order, GM plans to reimburse him and use the commercials itself.

"They're actually pretty good," said EV1 brand manager Frank Periera.

The events are ironic given that GM, with an annual ad budget of about $2 billion, doesn't seem to need help pitching its products. But it shows the unhappiness that fans of the EV1 feel over the way GM has spread the word about the nation's first widely available electric car.

GM introduced the sleek two-seater in 1996 with a $1.5-million commercial so eye-catching that it was nominated for an Emmy.

But since then, GM has taken a low-key approach, targeting prospective customers through direct mail and a few magazines and TV programs favored by techies.

Though the advertising is less visible lately, GM is spending more. It plans to spend $15 million to advertise the EV1 this year, up from $10 million in 1997.

But EV1 owners argue that a major ad campaign is needed to boost acceptance of the car, which is available in Southern California, Sacramento, San Francisco and Arizona. GM leased 300 EV1s in 1997 and expects to lease another 300 to 350 this year, spurred by the car's introduction in the Bay Area two months ago.

EV1 owners say they are concerned that if few people show interest in the car, GM will move on to other low-pollution technologies--though GM insists it is committed to the electric vehicle.

"This car is a wonderful breakthrough in technology that has so much innovation in it," gushes Rush, 44, who commutes five days a week in his EV1 between Sunland and Hollywood. "If the public turns a blind eye, it is possible it could all go away."

Periera said a high-profile campaign doesn't make sense for the EV1 because it appeals to a small group of consumers. Not only is the car a two-seater, but its battery must be charged every 60 to 70 miles. And its fixed monthly lease payments of $399 make it relatively expensive.

"This car is not for everyone," Periera said.

But EV1 owners are nothing if not enthusiastic.

"They are committed to the car, and it's wonderful," Periera said. "GM is committed too."

Rush tried to persuade GM to use his ads before he put them on the radio himself. They've aired on KFI during the last three weeks. With voice-overs by members of the "Voyager" cast, Rush taped prototypes of the ads and sent them to GM in March.

"Wouldn't it be great if every morning when you got up, your car had a full tank?" actor Robert Picardo (who plays Doctor in "Voyager") says in one spot. "While you were sleeping, it just filled up."

Impressed with the spots, Periera at first told Rush that GM might help underwrite them as part of a local dealer campaign. But Rush said he decided to air them on his own because GM appeared to be moving too slowly.

GM's lawyers reviewed the ads for statements that might get the company in trouble. Finding no glaring misstatements, GM decided not to interfere with the renegade campaign, which ended Thursday.

Rush, while pleased that GM may reimburse him for the ads, has a broader goal. "We consider ourselves evangelists," he said, referring to EV1 owners. "We're trying to get GM to change its advertising."

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