Final Inspection

Uh-Oh, Oprah Likes the Bug

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Volkswagen’s Beetle giveaway on the Oprah Winfrey show this week may turn out to be a good marketing ploy – or simply tempt fate.

In case you missed it, Oprah promised some 275 members of her studio audience a new ʼ12-model Beetle, once the car is available early next year. She teased the group with a silhouette of the revamped coupe, which loses some of its half-moon look in favor of a more angular and aggressive profile.

Volkswagen’s “marketing coup” marks the second time the talk show host has lavished cars on her audience, duplicating the 2004 giveaway of the then all-new Pontiac G6.

But the similarity between the two events goes beyond the basics, and you have to wonder if history ignored is doomed to be repeated.

Like General Motors six years ago, VW is promoting a car that isn’t available yet. Certainly, the stunt has generated some buzz, but you have to wonder how much that will be worth when the ʼ12 Beetle hits dealer showrooms several months from now.

When GM handed out its G6, it really wasn’t ready to sell the car either. Although the ploy drew incredible amounts of media attention – way more than this week’s encore, it’s uncertain at best whether it translated into many sales.

And like GM did with the G6, VW is billing the revamped Beetle as more of a driver’s car than the outgoing model, a marketing direction that on the surface appears at odds with Oprah’s testosterone-deficient viewer demographic.

After an initial flurry of interest from prospective buyers hitting Pontiac’s website, the promotion – reportedly costing $8 million – quickly appeared to run out of steam and showroom traffic returned to more normal levels.

There even was negative publicity to overcome when some receiving the “free” cars learned they would have to pay taxes on them, so this time VW will head that off by picking up all taxes and fees.

Sales of the G6 never really took off. The car peaked in 2006, never coming close to the volume highs of its Grand AM predecessor and winding up as a staple on rental lots. And, of course, we all know how Pontiac ended up.

In the end, it’s almost impossible to measure whether the Oprah razzle-dazzle and seal of approval has a positive, negative or neutral effect on automobile sales. Win or lose, marketers will tell you they got their money’s worth.

I’m certainly not suggesting a TV show was responsible for the ignoble fate of the G6 and the Pontiac brand, or that a nod from Oprah is the auto industry’s equivalent of the Sports Illustrated jinx, renowned for cooling off hot teams and athletes who appear on the magazine’s cover. The revamped Beetle’s launch very well could turn out to be a home run.

But VW executives may want to keep their fingers crossed and throw a pinch of salt over the shoulder just to be sure. It seems as if we might have seen this episode before.

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WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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Dave Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

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