Can Rosa Parks Sell Pickup Trucks?
Chevy's icky, exploitative new ad.
The spot:Singer John Mellencamp leans on the fender of a Chevy pickup, strumming an acoustic guitar. He sings, among other things, "This is our country." Meanwhile, a montage of American moments flies by: Rosa Parks on a bus. Martin Luther King preaching to a crowd. Soldiers in Vietnam. Richard Nixon waving from his helicopter. And then modern moments: New Orleans buried by Katrina floodwaters. The two towers of light commemorating 9/11. As a big, shiny pickup rolls through an open field of wheat and then slows to a carefully posed stop, the off-screen announcer says, "This is our country. This is our truck. The all-new Chevy Silverado."
This ad makes me—and, judging by my e-mail, some of you—very angry. It's not OK to use images of Rosa Parks, MLK, the Vietnam War, the Katrina disaster, and 9/11 to sell pickup trucks. It's wrong. These images demand a little reverence and quiet contemplation. They are not meant to be backed with a crappy music track and then mushed together in a glib swirl of emotion tied to a product launch. Please, Chevy, have a modicum of shame next time.
I should probably leave it at that (the poor ad is just trying to sell trucks, after all, in its own muddle-headed way). But this isn't your basic flag-waving car commercial. It mixes patriotic images with some heart-rending, shameful episodes from our past. And the ambiguity is furthered by the presence of John Mellencamp—a guy who, in a different incarnation, used to make semipolitical statements about the dark side of the American dream. A guy who wrote an open letter in 2003 arguing that the Iraq war was "solidifying our image as the globe's leading bully" and wondering why President Bush hadn't been "recalled" yet. Mellencamp once sang the line, "Ain't that America" with a decidedly bitter tinge. Now he sings the remarkably similar line, "This is our country," and it's hard not to wonder what he means by it.
Especially when Chevrolet adopts the phrase in a major ad campaign. Sure, you could dismiss those words, the way they're used in the ad, as meaningless, vaguely patriotic nonsense (and as a mild rip-off of Budweiser's "This Is Beer" slogan). But they're also a bold claim: Chevy's going to tell us what America is. And what exactly is America, in Chevy's view? Well, for one, of course, it's a light-duty, full-size pickup truck. But it's more than that, too. Listen to the chief creative officer at Chevy's ad agency, quoted in the press release: "We hope that 'Our Country. Our Truck.' [the title of the spot] will inspire people to think, 'Yeah. These are the bruises and scars that have shaped our nation, and we have rebuilt ourselves spiritually, emotionally and physically.' "
Ambitious stuff. Let's break down the ad piece by piece:
Mellencamp sings, "I can stand behind ideals I think are right" while we see Rosa Parks sitting on a bus. Fine, good, terrific. I think we can all stand behind the ideal of racial equality.
Next he sings, "And I can stand behind the idea to stand and fight," while we see soldiers in a field in Vietnam, helicopters chop-chopping above their heads. Wait, what? Is this a defense of the Vietnam War? A declaration that we pulled out too soon—should have been more willing to "stand and fight"? Is it a sly statement about our present Iraq dilemma? Is Chevy making the salted peanuts argument?
Next line: "I do believe there's a dream for everyone." Here we see MLK, dancing hippy freaks at Woodstock, and 1960s peace marchers. OK, so there's room in Chevy's worldview for some anti-violence memes, too. But are we meant to celebrate America both for getting into Vietnam and for getting out of it?
Here's where it gets introspective. Mellencamp sings, "This is our country" while we watch Richard Nixon, post-resignation, waving from the helicopter that will whisk him away from the White House in disgrace. That's our country? Shamed politicians? Drab, mid-'70s melancholia? Bummer, man.
But it gets worse. Mellencamp blah-blahs some empty lines like "from the East Coast, to the West Coast," while the ad shows footage of: 1) raging California brushfires, 2) Dale Earnhardt's stock car (presumably before he crashed it into a wall and killed himself), 3) Katrina floodwaters, 4) the 9/11 memorial. Yikes!
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.