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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
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GM’s List of “Dirty” Words

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General Motors“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


Despite Shakespeare’s quote, people have always had an affinity for certain words and an aversion to others.  George Carlin famously had 7 dirty words. (By the way, it turns out Carlin had way more than seven.)  General Motors, apparently, had its own list of dirty words.

GM’s list of “dirty” words was brought about, it seems, as a way for its legal department to avoid the creation of “smoking gun” documents.  Of course, the list itself is now a smoking gun.

Instead of training employees to openly discuss safety issues and auto defects, the company warned employees to keep to “only the Facts” in order to avoid product liability claims in the future.

So what was on the list of GM’s “dirty” words?  Certainly, some were sensational (“powder keg”, “rolling sarcophagus”, “Hindenburg”, “Kevorkianesque”), but many more were quite mundane (“always”, “bad”, “dangerous”, “never”, “problem”).

There were three words on GM’s list that were bolded.  Think you know which ones?  Maybe you guessed “Hindenberg” or “rolling sarcophagus” or “Kevorkianesque” – not words GM would want to see in an internal review of one of its vehicles.  But nope – not the words GM highlighted for its employees to avoid.

The three words GM highlighted in bold were alwaysdefect, and never.  Those were the words it really didn’t want its employees using.

GM's List of Dirty Words

You know the thing about lists like this one… words don’t get put on this list unless they’ve been used before.  What this list really says is that someone who worked at GM wrote down in a memo, review, email, or other correspondence that s/he believed the GM car had some of the following attributes:

  • apocalyptic
  • catastrophic
  • Challenger
  • deathtrap
  • explode
  • genocide
  • grenadelike
  • Hindenburg
  • Kevorkianesque
  • powder keg
  • rolling sarcophagus
  • Titanic
  • widow-maker
  • you’re toast

And GM tried its very best to cover up such concerns.

GM even had a list of “magic” words it believed could minimize the effect of safety concerns:

GM's Magic Words

In GM’s world, the vehicle wasn’t “defective”, it just didn’t “perform to design”.  The design didn’t “fail”, the part had a “visible crack” or “broke & separated”.  The vehicle is not “bad”, it performed “below expectations”.

In announcing a maximum $35 million  fine against GM, NHTSA’s acting director David Friedman criticized the company for its slide presentation.  In censoring employee’s speech, Friedman observed that GM was discouraging open and free discussion of potential problems.

One the one hand, it’s somewhat easy to see how these lists came about.  Company lawyers and marketers are obviously concerned about liability and public relations.  But on the other hand, it’s just another example of GM putting profits over customer safety.  An example of the bottom line being more important than human life.

How Did We Find Out About GM’s List of Dirty Words?

GM’s list of dirty words were disclosed as part of the GM’s $35 million fine to settle a government probe into GM’s 10-year delay in recalling millions of vehicles with a defective ignition switch.  Though the fine was the maximum amount available under the law, it represented less than 1% of GM’s earnings over the last year.  Less than 1 penny per dollar earned over the last year.

The recall – finally initiated this year – now includes nearly 16 million vehicles worldwide.

Though GM has only admitted 13 deaths related to this defect, a new analysis of federal safety data suggests that 303 people have died after their air bags failed to deploy for just two of the vehicle models recalled.

To date, GM has recalled 2.6 million vehicles, including:

  • 2005-2010 Chevy Cobalt
  • 2003-2007 Saturn Ion
  • 2007-2010 Pontiac G5
  • 2006-2011 Chevrolet HHR
  • 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice
  • 2006-2010 Saturn Sky

The defect permits the ignition to shut down the vehicle while in motion, which not only cuts off power steering and braking, but turns off the air bag… eliminating a critical safety feature during a period of crisis.

GM learned of the defect as early as 2001, but failed to recall any of the defective vehicles until this year.

GM Ignition Timeline

2001 – NYT reports on 3/12/14 that GM knew of problem in 2001 – three years earlier than GM previously disclosed
2004 – First reports of engines shutting down in 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt vehicles
May 2005 – GM engineer proposes a fix, but is rejected
July 29, 2005 – Amber Marie Rose dies after air bag in 2005 Cobalt failed to deploy – the first death tied to the defective ignition switch
December 2005 – GM issues a service bulletin to dealers, but does not issue a recall
March 2007 – Safety regulators tell GM about the Rose fatality, but do not open a formal investigation
April 2007 – Investigator suggests that fatal Wisconsin crash unrelated to ignition problem; no investigation opened
End 2007 – GM now tracking the problem; learns of 4 additional crashes
Summer 2010 – Cobalt is discontinued
Late 2013 – GM has learned of at least 31 ignition switch crashes resulting in 13 deaths
February 2014 – GM recalls 619,000 vehicles, before ultimately expanding to recall nearly 1.4 million cars

With GM instructing its employees to whitewash safety concerns, it’s really no wonder that so many “terrible things happened” at GM.

Update (5/20/2014):

Don’t know how I missed this, but I just came across the brilliant John Oliver’s take on GM’s list of dirty words:

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© Copyright 2014 Brett A. Emison

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