furor erupts over gm anti-biking ad campaign

The twitter and Facebook feeds of GM blew up with outrage last night in response to an article published online by the League of American Bicyclists. “GM Blunders onto Campus” called out an ad campaign (above) by the American car giant that encourages college students to ditch bicycles in favor of special savings on cars.

The ad, which gives the appearance of assigning cyclists to second-class citizenship with its photo and “Reality Sucks” headline, carries the tag line “Stop pedaling…start driving,” and refers college students to a GM website for college discounts on cars.

Here was the League’s take: “If you are a student looking to add tens of thousands of dollars of long term debt, care little about the environment, and want to lump two tons of steel around campus while paying through the nose for insurance, gas, and parking…General Motors has got the perfect deal for you.”

To GM’s credit, the car maker’s social media staff was listening and responding in real time to the steady outpouring of complaints –including those from advocates active in the #bikenyc stream on twitter.

For example, here was how GM responded — within one minute — to my message about the campaign:

@velojoy Most ill-conceived plan ever: GM launches “Stop Pedaling, Start Driving” campaign on college campuses. ow.ly/6UoWF #bikenyc [5:59 p.m.]

@GM Hey Susi, we’re listening + making changes to the ads. Didn’t mean any offense. [6 p.m.]

Previous ads in the series, including one featured in a 2010 announcement of a redesign of the college discount website, showed an image of an over-heating clunker car under the “Reality Sucks” banner. This morning, a check of the Facebook address on the bicycle ad shows the following version targeted to college students — minus the two-wheeled element:

The bicycle-bashing ad was a misstep for a company that includes a commitment to “being responsible stewards of the environment in all our business practices” in its corporate vision, and this month announced support of 16 carbon-reduction projects in the U.S. and an alliance with RelayRides, the first peer-to-peer carsharing marketplace.

In a final bit of irony, the company sells GMC-branded bicycles bearing the names of some of their truck models. For example, the GMC Denali Road Bike (below) is available through mass-market retailers.

Obviously, GM is is in the business of making and selling cars. Nonetheless, there’s plenty that an automobile company can do to help support cycling, as well. Here was one suggestion from a commenter, Melanie Battley Black, on the GM Facebook page last night:

“Like many others who have given feedback, I am amazed the Reality Sucks campaign was approved. How about showing how easy it is to place a bike rack or how many people can get to their favorite trails with a GM? I’m about to finish graduate school (to which I ride my bike) and WAS looking forward to splurging on a CTSV [a Cadillac model]. I hope you guys are listening.”

Note: The League of American Bicyclists represents the nation’s 57 million cyclists, by promoting “bicycling for fun, fitness and work through advocacy and education for a bicycle friendly America.”

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