History is Turning Into Pontiac and Pontiac is Already History

I recently saw a promo for the premiere of a new show on the History Channel (or just History as they are calling themselves these days). The show is called We’re the Fugawis and apparently it’s about a motorcycle club in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Not a historical motorcycle club from the past, mind you, but just a bunch of bikers in the present day. I haven’t seen the show, but I feel safe in assuming there’s not even an attempt at any type of historical tie-in, seeing as how History gave up on being about history a long time ago.

Would you want this to be the face of your brand?

I’m not the first person to bemoan the way History has been crapping all over its own brand with all these non-historical reality shows and all-too-credulous explorations into ancient alien pseudoscience in recent years, and I will not be the last. Suffice it to say that it seems bizarre that in an era of narrowcasting and niche marketing, a major media entity like History (owned by A+E Networks)  has been allowed to stray so far away and in so many disparate directions from the promise made to viewers by its very name. Visit History’s website and you’ll see promotions for shows about pawn shops, truck drivers, cars, a moving company and even marksmanship but precious little about, you know, history.

This is not to say that any of those shows are bad. (Actually, I will go ahead say that Ancient Aliens is garbage that might very well lower your IQ if you watch it. But I have no opinion of the other shows.) The network probably gets better ratings with its current lineup than it did back in the ‘90s when they were largely known for running World War II documentaries round-the-clock. But I would argue that the short-term focus on the current TV fads of reality shows and paranormal fluff will have the long-term effect of diluting the History brand. When those fads go away, and they will, what will History stand for at that point? Certainly nothing that the brand was founded upon.

The situation reminds me of General Motors. Back in the mid-20th Century, when GM was the king of the automotive world, the corporation was organized around a market segmentation system not unlike that of cable television networks. Their various divisions: Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile Pontiac, et. al., were all specifically targeted at particular niches, based primarily on gradations of target market affluence, but also on considerations of the driver’s lifestyle and self-image. American consumers of the ‘50s and ‘60s largely understood the hierarchy and associations of those brands.

1970 Pontiac GTO The Judge. Sweet!

Within the GM stable, for a time, Pontiac occupied an interesting and quite desirable space. They were known for performance vehicles. Many credit Pontiac with kicking off the muscle car era when it introduced the GTO. Pontiac produced the Firebird and its classic Trans Am edition, which Burt Reynolds made famous. For years, Pontiac’s marketing communications stressed one word: “Excitement.” And for a while that word was apt (even if Pontiac’s ’80s interpretation of the “Excitement” concept was pure cheese).

But, as we all know, GM lost its way. After decades of cost-cutting tactics, failure to adapt properly to shifts in the marketplace, “badge engineering,” and countless other missteps, GM’s brands became increasingly watered-down and muddled. The Pontiac name might have fallen the furthest of any of them. By the time the ’90s rolled around, Pontiac was known less for making cool cars for cool people and more for producing repurposed Chevies and unattractive vehicles with cheap-looking plastic cladding all over them. Pontiac’s long descent culminated in the 2001 model year with the Aztek, a car that some consider the ugliest vehicle of all time. Many put the Aztek on the short list of big mistakes that ultimately killed Pontiac. The Aztek became such a punchline that it was prominently featured on the TV series Breaking Bad as a symbol of how lowly and beaten down by life its main character was in the early seasons of the show. That last point alone is a good indicator of how far the Pontiac of the 21st Century had drifted from its golden age of muscle cars and “Excitement.”

In 2010, GM killed off the troubled Pontiac division as part of its Chapter 11 reorganization. There were a lot of factors that sank the division, but a 2009 CNNMoney piece titled “What Killed Pontiac” concluded, “Pontiac’s lack of focus as a brand may finally have brought its demise….”

I can’t help but wonder if History’s similar lack of focus and diversion from its roots will ultimately kill its brand. That remains to be seen. In the meantime, History should be mindful that those who fail to learn the lessons of Pontiac are doomed to repeat them.


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