Instead of Outlawing "Chevy," GM Should Ban the "GM Nod"

Last Updated Jun 14, 2010 6:10 AM EDT

Lots of people, especially my fellow auto writers, are snickering at Chevrolet for putting up a "swear jar" to encourage employees to stop calling Chevrolet by its nickname, Chevy. The idea, according to lame explanations put out by Chevy, was that nowadays Chevrolet sells two cars overseas for every one it sells in the United States, including a lot in developing automotive markets like China. I think what Chevrolet was trying to say is that it's important for these "new" customers to learn "Chevrolet" first, before they shorten it to "Chevy." It's almost like Chinese buyers somehow haven't earned the right to call it by its nickname -- or something.

The company also backpedaled and said it was OK for long-time customers to call it "Chevy." In fact, Chevy "loves it," apparently.

It's a convoluted argument, which only got worse the more the company talked. The fact is, a dumb idea got put down on paper (or e-mail) and somehow got leaked to the press and the public. I've heard the argument that the lesson learned is that Chevrolet would have been OK if they hadn't written it down. However, even managing to keep it internal wouldn't have made it a smart idea.

The point is, hasn't Chevrolet got more important things to do, like take some market share from Ford (F)?

My guess is, the "swear jar" was hatched by somebody with enough clout that nobody dared say it was a stupid idea -- what used to be known as the "GM nod." That's a habit the quote-unquote "New GM" should be trying to break, not calling Chevrolet "Chevy," for pete's sake. If somehow, somebody with insufficient clout managed to embarrass the company, I wouldn't want to be in their shoes right now.

The Chevy-Chevrolet thing gives GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre an opportunity to make an example out of somebody, "to encourage the others," as the French say. If somebody with a lot of clout came up with this dumb idea, they should be in trouble. If some low man on the totem pole wanted to try something new and failed, Whitacre should track him or her down and publicly tell them not to worry about it. If you're too scared to fail, you never try anything new, and what the heck, there's no lasting harm done.

Over the years GM has put out some pretty dumb gimmicks that somehow saw the light of day, probably because nobody dared say, "Boss, if you do that, it's going to make us look stupid."

Former GM purchasing czar Ignacio Lopez told everyone he wore his watch on the wrong wrist to purposely make himself uncomfortable until the company regained profitability. He also encouraged employees to eat a "warrior breakfast" of healthy food to get themselves going in the morning, instead of coffee and doughnuts. Not a bad idea, but it's none of his business what people eat for breakfast.

A few years ago, GM bosses all donned "29" lapel pins, signifying their determination for GM to reach 29 percent market share in the United States, or bust. GM's share is now 19.1 percent.

And who could forget the hapless GM mascot, "Howie Makem," with a Styrofoam head in the book Rivethead? Assembly line workers shot him full of holes with their rivet guns.

By those standards, maybe a swear jar for saying, "Chevy" doesn't sound too far out of line.

Photo: GM