November 1, 2006
Our Country, Our Truck? Or Our Desperation?

I've written before about how skeptical I am at academics and other critics who bash advertisers in a completely uncritical manner. I think it's unfortunate to lump advertisements, meant to sell goods, all into one large dishonest category. That being said, when I was interviewing a local politician back in Kentucky for the upcoming general election last week, he said of the local fiscal court that one bad apple can ruin a whole bucket, and I think the same can happen with the reputations of advertisers.

Advertising can be heavy-handed, but General Motors' newest ad campaign--"This is our country. This is our truck"--demonstrates how this can be taken to disgusting extremes. The ad invokes some of the most harrowing experiences in the history of our country, both natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and periods of social strife over issues such as civil rights, and ties them to the ups and downs of General Motors. Oh, and they call on Sept. 11, of course. At least that's the way The New York Times' David Carr and a lot of his sources from the advertising industry see it.

Carr begins his piece by writing, "The message seems to be that, even though America has been in the ditch several times during its history, it has always managed to pull itself out. And what is true for the country must be true for General Motors. It could be pointed out that Detroit and General Motors are in a ditch mostly because they drove there, ignoring global competition and consumer needs in pursuit of quarterly profits. But the back story of the disaster is obscured by the universal need to rebound."

Critics in the article pan the ad for celebrating the company's failures, using Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., to sell trucks, calling on negative images to produce positive feels in consumers, and desperate pleas. Al Reis of brand consultancy company Ries & Ries says that the message seems to be begging consumers to buy trucks so that the company won't go bankrupt, and he doubts that the traditional buyers of trucks are going to be swayed much by this whining approach asking for a handout from consumers to keep the company going. And Jerry Della Femina, who runs a New York ad agency, considers the ad a new low and manipulative.

And Carr writes, "National travail obviously touches the heartstrings, and it's hardly surprising that Sept. 11 became a theme in political advertising [ . . . ] But what works in politics may be dangerous in commerce." He points out the previous crassness of the NFL group hug in New Orleans following Katrina and Robert DeNiro's using his sorrow about 9/11 to hawk American Express credit cards but feels this stoops even lower than those examples, even lower than the bar with "the happiest happy hour south of Ground Zero."

But, never fear...there is one group that does not feel these ads are negative or manipulative or dangerous to the brand or stupid or crass or any of the other various charges that have been hurled at poor Genreal Motors? And who is that defender? Why, General Motors, of course!

A Chevrolet spokesperson claimed to have never thought about how the commercial equates the struggles of America with the struggles of the company. "The idea was that the pickup consumer is honest, hardworking, authentic and real. In order to be real and honest, we needed to show the scars and bruises, as well as the triumphs, of this country in order to be true."

And there are certainly some consumers who have voiced their support for the ad campaign. Take this comment from user "regfootball" from Cheers and Gears: Fresh Ideas for a Better GM:

Any ad with a patriotic theme is going to reinforce what the liberal urban type A CR reading twits already think, that GM is redneck and BELOW them. however, I think that's just fine. It's about time we gave a collective F U in our advertising to these groups which try to think they decide the mantra for the rest of the world. I am fine with them being proud and quite honestly I am cool with them leaving in the scene with the nuclear bomb drop on Japan as well. You know its gonna be controversial and it will get pulled because of whiners complaining but it will draw lots of attention to this new lauch and will prove, hey, Japan, you f'ed with us before. We're gonna protect what's ours, regardless of what the pansies in our country think. And we are ultimately going to come out on top....when push comes to shove. It will be a great reminder to people, that yes, IT DOES matter sometimes who you support with your dollars.

I have to agree that this ad campaign is the most disgusting form of draping a company in the flag, and I'm glad to see fellow advertisers standing up against it, along with journalists and critics. This is the type of advertising that gives capitalism itself a bad name.

Thanks to William Uricchio for sending this article my way.