In 1991, Italian clothing maker Benneton released a controversial ad campaign. Huge billboards and full page magazine ads displayed rows of crosses in an American military cemetery, a priest kissing a nun on the lips, a black woman breast feeding a white baby and other images designed to shock even the most jaded sensibilities. In 1992, Benneton upped the ante with photos of a dying Aids victim, a Kalashnikov-wielding African guerrilla holding a human leg bone, a boat overcrowded with Albanians, a group of African refugees, a weeping family contemplating the bloody body of a Mafioso and two Indians caught in a Calcutta flood. “Reality advertising” had arrived. And now it’s here, courtesy of, of all companies, Chevrolet.
The ad in question is “Our Country, Our Truck.” The 60-second music video cum ad features a montage of historical and manufactured images, including civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks sitting on a bus, Martin Luther King mouthing “I have a dream” in front of the Washington monument, a half-naked peace protester clutching a US flag modified with a peace symbol, a recently resigned President Nixon waving goodbye from a Marine helicopter, a raging wildfire, a hurricane ripping the roof off of a house, post-Katrina flooding, the twin floodlight light tribute at Ground Zero, weary firefighters (geddit?) and, oh yeah, a new Silverado.
Needless to say, after the ad was aired, a number of viewers and more than a few media commentators took GM to task for using images of disaster and political strife to sell pickup trucks. Needless to say, Chevrolet’s spin machine was warmed-up and ready to go. "We were trying to strike that balance between provocative and not stepping over the line," Chevrolet Advertising Director Kim Kosak told Automotive News. "A brand like Chevrolet can do it. If you used those images to hawk a $199 deal that would be reprehensible," Kosak added, oblivious to the old joke that ends “We already know what you are; we’re just haggling over price.”
When asked WTF they were thinking, the edgy ad guys responsible for the spot were even, um, edgier. According to Bill Ludwig, Chief Creative Officer for the Campbell-Ewald ad agency, "If you want to make a statement that rings true with the majority of people, you are going to piss off some people.” This, we can presume, was a large part of Ludwig’s goal. In case you missed it, “There are a lot of cynical people out there who don't react well to this, and a lot of people who will never get behind the wheel of a pickup. So let them get into their Volvo sedans and complain about this spot that they see as exploitive. This is not for them."
Never mind the ad’s subtext, clock Ludwig’s anti-Volvo agenda. Following GM’s recent hiring of right wing commentator Sean Hannity for a national radio promotion, this kind of barely concealed blue state hate is designed to attract pickup buyers with an “us vs. them” political mentality. Paranoid? Then what’s with John Cougar Mellencamp’s musical tribute to the idea of “stand and fight” under an image of a Vietnam battlefield? How reactionary is that? And you’ve got to wonder about the politics of a man who uses death, disaster and turmoil to sell a truck calling his critics “cynical.”
All of which brings us back to the central question: does controversy sell pickups? If Benneton can sell sweaters by showing a black stallion humping a white mare (as you can see, I’m not making this up), surely Chevy can sell a light truck or two by reminding us of the tragedy of 911. Ah, but there is a crucial difference between the two campaigns. As you’d expect from the company that brought us the front wheel-drive Impala SS, Chevy wimped out. Benneton’s ads were/are designed to confront viewers, to make them question their values and preconceptions. Chevy’s “Our Country, Our Truck” was/is designed to reinforce the traditional pickup truck buyer's (if no one else’s) values and preconceptions.
GM’s ad guy’s right: for Chevy’s core audience, the “Our Country, Our Truck” ad is about as confrontational as The National Enquirer. Even the atomic bomb explosion removed from the final cut would not have asked any questions of the average pickup truck buyer’s psyche. Sure, the ad exploits a few uncomfortable moments of our national history for commercial gain, but it’s not as if they showed a bunch of flag-waving Chevy owners pushing a non-union made Toyota Tundra off a cliff.
Once again, GM shows it just, can’t, quite, get, there. Like the people in charge of designing and building their products, the execs responsible for Chevrolet’s advertising don’t understand that fortune doesn’t favor the semi-brave. If you’re gonna build a V8 performance car, it's gotta be rear wheel-drive. If you're gonna piss people off, you gotta really piss them off. As it stands now, the only people who are going to be angry about this Silverado thing are GM’s shareholders.