This commercial, which dominated the commercial lineup this postseason, has already generated a twelve-car pileup (too far?) ofcritical scorn, and I’d like to ride on the back of that for just a little bit. Sensibilities, you may have already heard, have been wounded by this carjacking of patriotic sentiment for something so pedestrian as an advertisement. It’s united groups from 9/11 families to heads of advertising agencies to condemn a “Rosa Parks sales-a-thon.” Could General Motors have made such a serious strategic blunder? Corporations may be stupid, but they’re not rash, and they certainly don’t court controversy unprovoked. The commercial stands out so much not because it’s in poor taste, but for the originality and vision of its message. It was refreshing, it caught our attention—it worked.
Shameless is not the right word to describe it. This commercial is brazen. This commercial has balls. The popular reaction confirms that GM’s message was not just “Chevies are patriotic.” They’ve been doing that for years, that’s kid’s stuff. This is a bid for exclusive rights to patriotism. It shouts its self-awareness of its usurping status as the official product of America, taking the patriotic statement back to its source material. Brands have waved the flag before, but this commercial says, See the Vietnam War? That’s part of our brand identity. Golfing on the moon? Brand identity. It’s a knock-over-my-lunch-tray, what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it-move. And it’s an act of wonder.
It unfolds perfectly. It caught my attention over numerous replays, because I’d remember the commercial and keep forgetting the product. Which struck me as the point. As these American images unfold, I know I’m watching them in a commercial. And as I watch them, I become very aware—and its critics have said this as the whole problem—that they’re being used to sell a product. And I become curious. Who would do this?
Its honesty is almost flattering. Look at me. Look how far I’m willing to go for your patronage. Watch these images. America – you like America, don’t you? 9/11! Nobody hates 9/11. Katrina? We’ve GOT to stick together. The broadcast TV numbers game of advertising narrows down the possibilities of who could be responsible: an automobile, a department store, a feature film, or a household cleaning product. Of those, only feature films are dependable not to pull out of controversial programming (say, Survivor: Race War). But this is the opposite. Nothing’s more non-controversial than baseball. Baseball is an American institution. The only thing more American than baseball is whatever product this commercial is selling.
By the time they trot out the firemen and the home builders I can be pretty sure this is a commercial for a truck (imagine if in some genius genre-bending spot the firemen busted out bottles of Windex? I would buy Windex for life), but I wasn’t paying attention to the brief flash of an old pickup that went by earlier, so I still don’t know exactly who. Give up? I’m a Chevy. Bold. I would have gone with Ford, but on reflection, Chevy is just as American. As David Carr points out, patriotism has been their long-running branding strategy. But who’s to know anymore? Half of these guys are owned by the Germans anyway, it’s just so hard to keep track of which half. Chrysler’s kooky foreigner Dr. Z commercials have been shelved.
The Dr. Z strategy hints at the intended message behind this weird commercial. Everybody’s going hybrid these days. And the more recent controversial images—9/11 and Katrina—have a connection that can be triangulated with autos to reveal the one big issue that the terrorist attack, the natural disaster, and plunging truck sales have in common: Oil. And here’s the Silverado bucking the trend. Here’s where Chevy is playing with our sensibilities a bit, not just appealing to our nationalism. It’s saying it understands why Americans might go hybrid these days. These are tough times. Katrina sparked an energy crisis that crippled America, and 9/11 got us involved in Iraq in the first place. Never mind that the hurricane is broadly attributed as a result of global warming. These are real issues, and it’s no wonder people are concerned about fuel efficiency. But come on, you know deep down that trucks still feel a little bit more American. It’s a guilty pleasure just to think it. Chevy’s move is calculatedly counterintuitive. Chevy’s spokesperson says its message here is, “we’ve had some bruises and scars, yeah, [sic] but we’ve gotten up and gotten on with it,” but there’s more to the message than that. It wants you to buck the trend. It’s daring you to stand up and drive a haul-ass gas-guzzler—if no one else is doing it, then it’s an even more honorable move. Would Rosa Parks have bowed to pressure, and driven a hybrid, in a climate like this?
Corporations aren’t rash, and Chevy knows to hedge its bets. During the same games, during the same commercial breaks, it ran a more comic series of ads promoting its hybrid vehicles. The archetype of the real American has been replaced by the archetypal Mac user/graphic designer, the type more familiar from VW ads. As they leave their hybrids by the pumps to stop in at the convenience shop, the gas hose strikes, vandalizing the defenseless hybrid vehicle before the hapless unsuspecting hip driver returns. In carrying out its sinister intentions in defense of gasoline the hose evokes the motions of a charmed snake, and this is a clear symbolic reference to the Middle East. By driving hybrid, we can toss of the yoke of our energy dependence to enemy states, and Chevy can have it both ways.