Automotive > Infotainment & Telematics Blog

'Twas the Night before Xmas and OnStar is Running Ads and Tracking Santa

by Roger Lanctot | Dec 24, 2013

GM has been flooding YouTube with ads featuring OnStar this holiday season. The ads, which have been around since mid-year and have appearing previously on television, present either the remote diagnostics or roadside assistance capabilities of the 17-year-old telematics service.

The ads are interesting for the way they highlight the challenges still facing the automotive industry when it comes to leveraging a built-in modem to sell more cars. After investing hundreds of millions of dollars in OnStar, a well-recognized and powerful brand name, the expectation is that OnStar ought to help sell cars.

Many years ago, OnStar was capable of doing precisely that, easing the anxiety of car buyers that help would be automatically summoned in the event of an accident. But the advent of the smartphone has somewhat diminished the power and relevance of this message.

But still, OnStar remains a key element of GM’s unique selling proposition and so the advertising campaign must go on.  Among the places I have run across OnStar’s TV ads and high volume is on YouTube. There are two ads, one focusing on remote diagnostics and the other on roadside assistance.

The remote diagnostic ad shows a GM vehicle having an extraterrestrial experience with a satellite beaming vehicle information from the car to the vehicle owner – reassuring that owner that the car is performing as it should. The roadside assistance ad promises that OnStar will come to the rescue if one of its vehicles should leave the roadway and become disabled.

Of course, OnStar isn’t the only car company trying to sell cars be touting the benefits of a built-in cellular module for emergency calls, roadside assistance or even vehicle diagnostics. Hyundai, too, has advertised its built-in BlueLink solution – also to limited effect. The problem lies in the the limitations of these two use cases.

In the case of the vehicle diagnostics communication, customers tend to lose interest. In the real world, very little goes wrong with new cars in the first couple of years of ownership - hopefully. As a result, after the first couple periodic messages, consumers tend to lose interest.

To make diagnostic communications more compelling cars would have to perform far less predictably – ie. they’d have to fail more often. No one wants that. What customers do want, though, is real-time communications when a system fails, or better yet a message anticipating a failure and alerting the driver.

Both of these cases are problematic from an advertising perspective. It is hard to highlight how a car either anticipates or responds to system failures. This is especially true when most of the car advertising on television shows drivers blissfully driving through winding mountain roads or empty (yes, empty!) city streets.

The closest that television advertising for cars in the U.S. comes to the emergency response or breakdown anticipation message are ads emphasizing safety aired most prominently by Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz. Consumers' car-purchasing instincts are not stimulated by ads for roadside assistance or vehicle diagnostics.

The roadside assistance ad, in particular, is an interesting twist for OnStar. In the past these ads emphasized the case of a violent crash with the potential for injuries and an urgent OnStar response. In the latest ad the driver appears to have simply wandered onto the shoulder of the road and become stuck.

With U.S. highway fatalities declining annually for the past decade (a string broken last year with a slight uptick), the average consumer simply does not fear death or injury from a car crash the way they should or the way they did 17 years ago. As a result, the advertising message may only resonate with older consumers, although the driver in the ad is decades away from retirement age.

The ads and their presence on YouTube on the eve of Christmas and at the peak of year-end new-car offers suggests a bid to sell cars with the OnStar message or at least build brand equity. Coming as they do less than a year ahead of GM’s launch of LTE technology the ads capture a moment in time for GM that is passing quickly.

By this time next year OnStar will be talking in its ads about software updates and application downloads, remote control of the car and in-vehicle app stores. Until then, we can sleep soundly in the quiet assurance that OnStar is watching over its customers this holiday season.

A final note: OnStar is once again offering its Santa Claus report to customers who press the blue button:

From Twitter:

OnStar @OnStar 10h

#Santa’s journey has just begun! Press the blue #OnStar button to follow him from the North Pole to your door.

Is it asking too much to want an actual traffic report instead?

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