Rubin: Why GM’s Prince salute rocked, and others reeked

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
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Prince left behind many unreleased songs when he died last week at 57, but as far as we know, he never wrote one about breakfast cereal.

Ergo, Cheerios’ attempted tribute to him was generally reviled as self-serving, opportunistic and exploitative.

GM’s tribute, on the other hand, was so powerful, understated and elegant that it will probably be taught in advertising and design classes.

It featured a Corvette, as did one of Prince’s best-known songs. Or anyway, Prince Rogers Nelson used “Little Red Corvette” in the title and lyrics, even if that wasn’t exactly what he was referring to.

“When people see a solid link,” says Eastern Michigan University professor Sheila Sasser, “they get it.”

When they don’t — when the connection seems inauthentic, or a social media post seems like more of an appropriation than an appreciation — “the reaction is that they’re taking advantage of the situation.”

Sasser, a former high-level advertising executive, teaches advertising and marketing. She has worked with General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, and also with 3M, whose Prince tribute was described by Adweek’s Alfred Maskeroni as “a good example of where things go wrong.”

For the record, Sasser considers the posts by Cheerios and 3M to be legitimate by reason of geography. Prince was a stalwart Minnesotan and they’re Minnesota companies, which gives them some leeway.

But post-mortem salutes can be a tricky business, and a poor attempt can be more harmful than a good attempt is helpful.

One useful tip: Don’t use your cartoonish mascot in a tweet and ascribe sorrow to an inanimate object.

You can try too hard

Hamburger Helper is another General Mills product. The tweet posted in its name featured the brand’s signature white glove above a photo of Prince and a smarmy message that concluded, “A glove can only take so much sadness.”

“You have to keep these things respectful and simple,” Sasser says. “You can get too wrapped up in copywriting. They were trying to do too much.”

Hamburger Helper’s tweet was quickly deleted. So was the one from Cheerios — the words “Rest in Peace” in white against a purple background, with a Cheerio dotting the i.

GM’s full-page ad in The Detroit News, New York Times and four other papers was stark and simple, and did not mention the company or Chevrolet.

“Baby, that was much too fast. 1958-2016,” it said in white type, referencing the lyrics to “Little Red Corvette.” At the bottom of the page, vibrant against a black background, was the stylish tail end of a red 1963 ’Vette.

Contrast that to a mawkish purple 3M logo against a white background with a white teardrop between the characters.

“You wouldn't hand out flyers for your company at a funeral,” observed’s Bonnie Burton, “so why do the equivalent on social media?”

Meaningful relationship

Marketing professor Puneet Manchanda of UM’s Ross School of Business found the 3M attempt “a little bit commercial,” and called its geographic connection to Prince “tenuous.”

Its execution, however, was “much nicer than the Cheerios ad.”

Execution was No. 3 on Manchanda’s list of criteria for a successful tribute, behind 1) the relationship between the artist and the brand, and 2) the avoidance of exploitation.

GM not only had a legitimate connection to Prince, it was a bond Prince created. The company spent serious, spur-of-the-moment money, Manchanda notes, for no gain “except perhaps to create good will.”

“Authenticity is the key here,” he says — which is something to keep in mind as other beloved entertainers do what we all eventually must.

Bob Seger, for instance, has a natural connection to Chevrolet, which built its pickup truck campaign around one of his songs for nearly a decade.

But if Domino’s posts a picture of a pizza with “Like a Rock” spelled out in pepperoni?

Better turn the page.


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