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Holy unemployment! Batman loses job as Onstar pitchman

Gotham City, November 8, 2002; Joe Miller writing for Bloomberg reported, General Motors Corp. is firing the superhero as pitchman for its OnStar in-vehicle communication system.

The world's largest automaker will replace TV commercials based on the caped crusader with less expensive real-life radio ads. In the spots, a man is heard dialing for help from a crash site and a woman calls after locking herself out of her car --with a baby inside.

"At some point you have to talk about its practical applications," said Jim Sanfilippo, who advises automakers, dealers and ad agencies at Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc.

Detroit-based General Motors has about 2 million OnStar customers and wants to increase revenue to at least $4 billion by 2005 from $750 million in 2001. Some analysts said OnStar customers aren't renewing often enough for General Motors to meet the goal.

General Motors introduced the radio spots nationally yesterday and will phase out Batman in early 2003, when its three-year licensing agreement with AOL Time Warner Inc.'s DC Comics expires, Chet Huber, president of the automaker's OnStar unit, said in an interview.

The automaker introduced OnStar in Cadillac cars in 1996 and offers the service on all brands including Chevrolets and Saturn. OnStar uses cellular and satellite technology to connect vehicles when a driver calls or when a crash is severe enough to automatically trigger airbags.

The service for the first year comes standard on more expensive 2003 models or as a $695 option on others. The monthly price after the first year ranges from $16.95 for the basic service to $69.95, which includes roadside assistance and concierge service for drivers who want restaurant reservations or theater tickets.

Huber will say only that "more than 50 percent" of subscribers renew after the first year. He wouldn't be more specific.

General Motors also is trying to increase revenue from OnStar by adding services such as voice-activated phone calls and email, and is supplying the system to rivals Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler unit is introducing a competing phone system, U-Connect, for the 2003 model year. Ford Motor Co. in June dissolved a joint venture with Qualcomm Inc. to create its own system, called Wingcast.

Fighting Crime

The Batman commercials showcased the Dark Knight fighting crime in an OnStar-equipped Batmobile using the sets, characters and curvaceous, jet-propelled black car from the popular Warner Brothers Batman movies. Warner Brothers is a unit of AOL Time Warner, the world's biggest media company.

A survey by J.D. Power & Associates found that 80 percent of new-vehicle owners recognize the OnStar name, in part because of the Batman commercials, said J.D. Power researcher Jeremy Bowler.

The problem, Huber said, is that not enough of them know what OnStar does and how it works. The radio spots try to remedy that.

In the radio ad crash call, an OnStar operator contacts the police for a man who has been injured in a highway collision. The locked-out mother gets a hand from an OnStar operator who sends an electronic signal to unlock the car door.

"It's certainly expensive to produce commercials that are essentially movie quality, which is what we were all striving for when we used Batman," Huber said. He wouldn't say how much General Motors spent on the Batman campaign, which began in early 2000, or comment on OnStar's revenue targets.

Sanfilippo, the market analyst, estimates the automaker spent about $1 million to film each of a handful of Batman commercials and another $300,000 to $500,000 each time a commercial ran on prime-time television. With radio, OnStar can run ads more often at about half the cost, he said.