With the film Wag the Dog, Hollywood introduced a new phrase into the lexicon of popular American culture.
The film featured a White House chief of staff who directed public attention away from real problems within the presidency by instigating a phony war with Albania.
One wonders if General Motors' senior managers studied the film and its implications in developing their latest strategy.
GM plans to spend $4 billion of shareholder money to acquire a sizable portion of the distribution system and then go into competition with the remaining dealers. At the least, that will further demoralize an already shell-shocked dealer body and result in years of warfare in state legislatures and in the courts.
All the strife and expense will do nothing to return GM to the leadership position it enjoyed for decades, but it will deflect attention from the real issues.
When Jimmy Carter was president, GM commanded more than 50 percent of the domestic market. The concern then was that the government would break up GM, spinning Chevrolet off.
The marketplace did that on its own. In a generation, Chevrolet alone has lost more market share than Ford Motor Co. has. Buying dealerships will do nothing to reverse that trend and, on their own, the dealerships will prove to be a poor investment.
Tom Pappert of Chrysler said it best: 'No factory ever made money owning a dealership.' And he should know. Chrysler has owned a lot of them. AutoNation and Ford have experienced the challenges of buying and managing dealerships. Operating dealerships without dealer input will prove difficult at best.
All of this to solve a problem that doesn't exist. GM has many problems, but no one has ever postulated that the GM dealer body is one of them. The new dealer order entry system may be one, but the dealers themselves are not. In fact, it is this dealer body that has made GM a success in the past. When the product line has stumbled, the dealers kept GM in the game.
These are the dealers who sold nearly 2 million Vegas, made the X car a best seller and kept Cadillac sales topping the luxury-car list long after the product fell out of contention.
The dealer network is loyal and effective. The dealers are well positioned to take GM's market share back over 40 percent and beyond.
GM is not in the business of retailing automobiles; it is in the business of designing them, building them and wholesaling them to the retailers. And therein lies the problem. GM's products are not exciting or memorable. What's more, the corporation does not deliver them on a timely basis to dealers and customers who do want them.
Yet for too long, GM has believed that it is the process that somehow dictates success. Perhaps that is a logical outgrowth of the Saturn experiment. But time and again, the industry has learned - frequently the hard way - that it is all about the product.
It was the products of Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell that made GM in the first place. It was the product that put the imports on the map in the United States. It was the Beetle that made Volkswagen in America. The 1955 Chevrolet defined a decade. The Mustang reinvigorated Ford in the 1960s. The minivan saved Chrysler in the 1980s. And product brought VW back from the brink in this market in the 1990s.
VW didn't buy up its dealer body when things got tough. It supported its dealers and then developed exciting products for them to sell. Now, VW and its dealers are back on top again.
GM's offerings today look good on paper and on the spec sheets, but it stops there. The products tend to be bland, look-alike cars that inspire no excitement in GM buyers, much less conquest buyers. The product is the problem, not the dealer body.
The 1992 Clinton campaign had a war room to chart its course to victory. On the wall hung a sign that read, 'It's the economy, stupid!' lest anyone forget the core issue that would bring victory.
GM's war room needs a sign that says: 'It's the product, stupid!' GM should take its battle to the marketplace and put its $4 billion into exciting new products, not into an ill-advised war with its dealers.
This commentary presents the opinions of the author, writing as a GM shareholder. It does not represent the opinions or policies of the American International Automobile Dealers Association, its directors, officers or staff.