Ad Nauseum: Interpreting GM’s Confusing War on Transit and Bicycles

(Tanya Snyder takes a somewhat more serious tone at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.  Alao, the Times reports that G.M. is pulling the advertisement out of its rotation.- DN)

Does reality suck?  Apparently to General Motors.

Yesterday, the company’s year old advertising campaign to college students received a fresh round of scorn yesterday as Bike Portland published their most recent print advertisement, found in the Daily Bruin and heaped on loads of scorn.

But here’s the thing, just like State Farm’s Humiliated Cyclist ad campaign, the meaning of the advertisement is open to interpretation.  I see the ads as cleverly disguised apologies for the damage wrought by America’s Car Culture obsession aided by General Motors’ advertising and lobbying activities.

Image via the Daily Bruin via Bike Portland

A UCLA undergraduate who lives with her parents because of family debt partially caused by decades of car payments, stumbles wearily out of the house. Her Dad insists that he drive her to her first class in the morning, even though they live in Westwood. So the two walk to the car parked on the sidewalk in front of her house and they head off to class. She keeps the window rolled up to avoid the air pollution created during the morning rush hour on Westwood Boulevard. Just as she thinks, “Reality Sucks, I never should have given up the bike I road in high school for this crap,” (stopped pedaling to start driving…) a cyclist pulls up. She gives him her best come hither smile, but the poor cyclist is tired of being sexually harassed because he’s constantly exercising so he pretends not to see her. Besides, he’s running a little early today because he needs to finish the Model Street Manual encouraging healthier streets published by the Luskin Center for Innovation before he can read the most recent update on UCLA’s Be a Green Commuter Blog.

But not everyone agrees with this interpretation.  The Social Cycling Austin Facebook site has also re-imagined the advertisement.

Other advertisements in the campaign take a firm stand against bus service cuts that cause overcrowding and apologize to pedestrians for drivers that are gigantic assholes.

Via GM's Reality Sucks website

She gets out of the car and waves goodbye to her father.  As she stands at the intersection of Westwood and Le Conte, waiting for her turn to cross one of L.A.’s innovative Scramble Crosswalks, a passing car driver spills some of his Big Gulp on his lap causing him to lose his concentration.  As he veers towards the pedestrian area, he regains control of his vehicle but not before splashing a puddle all over the helpless pedestrian.  “Reality Sucks,” she thinks again.

Exhausted and wet from her “relaxed commute,” she stumbles in to the campus coffee shop .  As she enters she notices the cyclist who scorned her earlier before zipping past the congested traffic to campus is walking out on his way to his urban planning class.  But then she spots a familiar face, her friend Ellen, across the way.  She sits down and asks, “what’s up?”  But Ellen has had a hard morning herself.  Her commute hasn’t been the same since Metro was forced to cut 30% of its bus service hours because of a decline in federal and state subsidies.  If only the government hadn’t wasted all that money on Cash for Clunkers, Car Industry Bailouts or decades of subsidizing freeway and road construction.  “Reality doesn’t have to suck,” Ellen says as she imagines a greener alternative to the status quo.

Have we missed any images or other parts of the campaign?  Send any images or text to damien@streetsblog dot org or leave them in the comments section.


  • Hey GM: Stop peddling. Start Pedaling.

  • Statsdude

    My wife, who used to work in advertising noticed the increase in bicycles used in advertising about a year ago, commenting to me that, if the Mad Men are noticing it, it has become mainstream. The GM ad may have worked a decade ago or two ago, where cars were an expression of ego and status, but not in today’s economic environment.

    Today, it just looks like they don’t get it.

  • Chris L.

    I’m a Valet driver for a hotel and my bicycle is worth much more than either of these two GM vehicles. GM vehicles tend to break down and they lack creativity in design. Perhaps, the reality that sucks is that GM is having trouble creating a piece of machinery as effective and inviting as the bicycle.  I’m also jealous when I see someone on their bike and I’m in the car, I usually think what this girl is thinking while she is smiling, “I wish I was on my bicycle.”

  • graciela

    They should show the reality sucking truth at the gas pump, in bumper to bumper traffic, and of course, the bill you get every month to pay for a car when you can’t even get a job these days.

  • Anonymous

    Always remember that this campaign was written by folks who allowed their hometown Detroit to go from this:

    to this:

  • Unfortunately, this ad probably works great at advertising to the ignorant bros that abound in Westwood. Perhaps they realize marketing to people who aren’t blithering idiots is a lost cause.

    Why we bailed them out, but couldn’t bail out BikeE, is beyond me, though.

  • Anonymous

    The ironic thing about this ad campaign…… was made by students and not GM. If you read their tweets and back history on this campaign, it was the students who thought it would be better to highlight how GM is superior to walking/biking/transit. Hence, why GM was quick to pull the plug on the add once they realized the uproar; but they figured if students were coming up with this marketing plan, then it would be fine.

    Kind of sad that the majority of the future generations who still value cars over biking/walking/transit.

  • Michael Cahn

    This is what UCLA’s own Professor Richard Jackson’s (Professor/Chair, Environmental Health Sciences) wrote in an email: 
    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.  While every driver in LA knows that the reality which truly “sucks” is the grid-locked, car-loaded, obesity-enhancing, stress-generating car-toxicity of simple commuting in this region.   The company that helped destroy public transit in Los Angeles is now running a campaign to convince students who travel by environment-, fitness-, and efficiency-friendly bicycles that they are inferior to those who travel in highly discounted mini-trucks.  Shameless, isn’t it?

    Not much irony here, but a serious and clear voice from the Public Health leadership. Perhaps only a question of time when medical profession will be seen protesting in front of those car dealerships

  • Anonymous

    Well, A) They are probably insipid Marketing Majors and  B) The jokes on them; they will not be able to afford own and operate a private automobile.

  • Anonymous

    Well, A) They are probably insipid Marketing Majors and  B) The jokes on them; they will not be able to afford own and operate a private automobile.

  • Anonymous

    GM didn’t destroy public transit in Los Angeles.  It may have administered the coup de grace, but the (now-)CPUC and (now-)Caltrans had a much greater role.

  • Anonymous

    GM didn’t destroy public transit in Los Angeles.  It may have administered the coup de grace, but the (now-)CPUC and (now-)Caltrans had a much greater role.

  • Davistrain

    GM didn’t help matters any, but I think a main culprit in making automobiles the way “normal people” get around is Henry Ford.  His Model T made it possible for “everyman” to drive, and when GM (and other automakers) started building cars that were more powerful and comfortable, T-bone owners traded their “Flivvers” in,
    creating a secondary market for folks who otherwise couldn’t afford any kind of car.

  • John

    First the big car companies conspired to destroy public transit in America, so everyone would have to own a car. Now, I bet they are secretly lobbying to legislate bicycles off the road, or make it difficult to use them. Amsterdam has the right idea when it comes to pedal power, they embrace it.  To hell with G.M.


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