Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss-American driver and engineer, and Billy Durant, the founder of General Motors, started Chevrolet Motor Car Company in late 1911. By 1914, the company began advertising in newspapers, citing their vehicles’ cheap price and “unprecedented efficiency.” The ads ended up working, as the company’s sales began growing at rapid rates. While the company sold only 2,786 cars in 1914, they finished their 1917 sales having sold 111,779 cars!
Since then, Chevrolet has been at the forefront of clever marketing campaigns. After all, they have plenty of competition, and advertisements are one of the best ways to get noticed by potential buyers. While these ad strategies originated in newspapers and later progressed to radio and television, Chevrolet has recently been trying their hand at new media, particularly social media. Not only has this boosted the company’s popularity among younger consumers, but it’s also allowed for additional creativity.
Some of the campaigns are long gone, but you might still see some remaining elements of them in your local Chevy dealerships. Let’s see how these marketing strategies have evolved over the years, with a focus on Chevy’s most iconic campaigns…
“The Heartbeat of America”
Chevy has always been fond of pulling the America card, and what better way to show their patriotism than declaring themselves “The Heartbeat of America.”
The company ended up choosing composer Robin Batteau to create the accompanying song for the late 1980s/early 1990s campaign. The jingle (or, as Chevy advertising director Dannielle Hudler referred to it, the “anti-jingle”) quickly became a hit, and when it was time for Chevy to retire the campaign, dealerships wanted to continue using the ad and song.
“The music embodied the campaign,” said Hudler. “It would have been good, but not great, without that music.”
“Like a Rock”
This Chevy campaign could be seen throughout the 1990s (it effectively ended in 2004), and it quickly became one of the car industry’s best-known slogans. The company used singer Bob Seger’s 1986 hit “Like a Rock,” and the song quickly became synonymous with Chevy trucks. The Americana feel, including shots of farmers, firefighters and veterans, also helped reinforce that Chevy was an American brand.
The idea originated from the company’s desire to advertise the durability of their trucks. They decided they wanted a “meaningful, emotional” twist to the commercials, and they ultimately came across the Seger song.
“I thought ‘Like a Rock’ was over the moon,” Chevy general manager Ritter said (via Julie Halpert of AdAge.com). “It captured the physicality of the truck,” the independence of the truck buyer and the vehicle’s durability. The campaign tested well among focus groups.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the song quickly became iconic, Seger and his band didn’t perform the hit for nearly 30 years. Why retire such a popular tune? Seger only wanted to perform the song with the right combination of band members, and that finally happened at a 2013 concert in Detroit.
“We haven’t done it for 27 years, so it’s like a new song for us live,” he said. “You know, it’s so great; it’s kind of like when (band mate) Alto (Reed) plays the sax on ‘Turn the Page.’ Once people recognize the song we’re playing, it starts out really really quiet. And once I sing the first line it gets a big response, so it’s a lot of fun.”
On April Fools, Chevy decided to switch things up and stray away from the usual combinations of silly tricks.
As part of their #BestDayEver campaign, the automakers traveled through America and treated random strangers with acts of kindness. These ‘acts of kindness’ included a Kelly Clarkson concert for some lucky fans, a makeover for a woman, free gas, free pizza and, of course, the opportunity to play with cute puppies. They even went as far as to surprise Occidental College history students by dressing actor Alec Baldwin like Abraham Lincoln. Clearly, they wanted to pull out all the stops.
“We are going to make it the #BestDayEver for thousands of people across the country with hundreds of events and surprises, big and small, as an unmistakable signal that something massive is happening at Chevrolet,” said Chevy’s US vice president of marketing Paul Edwards.
Earlier this week, Chevy sent out a press release regarding their upcoming 2016 Chevrolet Cruze. There’s nothing too weird about that, but take this into account: the release was composed solely of emojis. When you hear the company’s reasoning behind the strategy, it makes plenty of sense:
“Words alone can’t describe the new 2016 Chevrolet Cruze, so to celebrate its upcoming reveal, the media advisory is being issued in emoji, the small emotionally expressive digital images and icons in electronic communication.”
I’m not an emoji expert, so I’m not going to attempt to decipher it. However, the ads have certainly caught on, as their #ChevyGoesEmoji campaign has been trending all week. They’ve even released a series of commercials, including an ad that shows comedian Norm McDonald attending the fictional Emoji Academy.
Chevy has also taken advantage of other unique sources for advertising. Millenials love their Instagram, and Instagram users seem to love professional Instagrammer Kevin Lu, who has nearly 200,000 followers! The former biomedical engineer (that’s right, he left that industry to snap pictures) was hired by GM to cover the debut of the 2016 Chevy Volt back in February.
“I get hired because I’m a social influencer,” Lu told Bradford Wernle of Autonews.com. “I take photos. They reached out and said, ‘Come to the auto show and see our new car.’
“I figure if people want to see cars, it’s not that hard to find cars,” he continued. “I kind of want to get into more behind-the-scenes stuff people don’t experience firsthand. This way, I can give people a more personal, intimate view of what’s going on. It’s a cool way to photograph.”
Hiring Lu clearly worked out for Chevy, as each of his videos and pictures got at least 1,000 ‘likes.’
Finally, the company recently decided to embrace their “real people, not actors” mantra, by relying on freelance social media experts to help advertise their product, particularly the release of the 2015 Chevrolet Trax.
“Twenty social media influencers will create a “social swarm,” using a mix of paid media, social media and unique experiences – conveying the versatile personality and capabilities of the all-new Trax in Chicago and New York,” the company said in a statement. “Following personalized itineraries, each participant is tasked with sharing their city discoveries one may not otherwise find, including venues and activities like live music in a small club, trampoline training, a butchery demo and a distillery tour.”
Part of Chevy’s rich history and popularity can be attributed to their popular advertisements over the year. It’s hard to think of a more iconic car campaign that “Like a Rock” or “The Heartbeat of America.” With advanced technology, Chevy is now capable of doing pretty much anything when it comes to promoting their brand.
Now fast-forward to 2016 and we find what has been described by some as Chevy’s greatest misstep in terms of marketing campaigns. Not that it was their intention…
Titled “Real People, Not Actors” the series of television spots focused on (i) emerging technologies (ii) earned accolades (iii) evolving design philosophy evident by Chevy’s latest model year offerings, while simulating consumer perception through the reactions of “real people.”
Here’s one featuring the 2016 Chevy Malibu ‘unbadged’ (which, to be clear, is not priced in the $50,000 – $60,000 range)
On January 1st, 2018 Chevy’s Press-room assessed the success of the campaign. Referring to it as the “car campaign you never expected” Chevy asserted that the initiative had proven itself successful in challenging consumer perceptions – just as it had been designed to.
But the perception of the campaign from the consumer end was slightly different. If Chevy’s intention had been to fuel genuine excitement about their lineup through relatable subjects, they had failed in epic fashion. And the same failings of the Malibu spot shown above were repeated over and over again in every spot to follow.
Regardless of the longevity of the campaign (still enjoying airtime well into 2019) it didn’t take very long for the commercials to incur the unrelenting wrath of parody. Delved out gleefully by YouTube channel ‘Zebra Corner’ a steady stream of ready-for-YouTuber content emerged, taking aim at Chevy and what might best be described as forced realism.
Zebra Corner, a Tampa Bay-based entity is the brainchild of two longtime friends, videographer Ali Shahriari and software analyst (and former Army paratrooper) Dave Irwin. Self-described ‘funniest guys in the room’ and failed stand-up comics, the two decided to join forces in the production of commercial parodies inspired by their MST3K-styled mocking of commercials aired during Sunday football.
And in that regard, Chevy’s attempt at earnest marketing provided an easy target. With a smug presenter in Potsch Boyd setting a clearly staged scene, and industry-ignorant assessments feeling forced from the mouths of unreliable camera-ready subjects, the jokes seemed to write themselves. But how to deliver that damning blow? If only Zebra Corner had a lantern-jawed, camera-ready presence of their own. And then… Like the shocking return of some prodigal bastard Wahlberg, Irwin created the character of ‘Mark’ (pronounced ‘Mahk’) a working-class Masshole, afflicted with the very worst of Boston accents.
Inserted by Shahriari via chromakey effects, ‘Mahk’ found himself inserted into the most laughable sequences of the ‘Real People, Not Actors’ ads — delivering the kind of earnest observations and criticisms that an actual real person would make. And neither the presenter, Chevy’s lineup, or the other ‘real people’ were exempt from the hilarious frankness of his commentary.
WARNING: The following video clips contain adult language and may not be suitable for all audiences.
It all started with the Chevy Malibu which (i) could never be confused for an Audi, BMW or BMW-Tesla Hybrid and (ii) is apparently the quickest score a quality gorilla mask.
Then, of course, there’s the long overdue acknowledgment of vagueness, both in terms of ‘J.D. Power & Associates’ and awards for ‘Best Initial Quality’.
And (for those enjoying themselves) here’s one more of our favorites, having some fun at the expense at Chevy’s decision to pander to the largely unrelatable hipster subsection of the millennial consumer base.
Like any popular recurring character, the ‘Mahk’ character eventually became a parody of himself, becoming just as mock-worthy as the target which had inspired him.
Here he is on the ‘Shark Tank’ taking one last swing at Chevy’s ads with some Boston love.
And if that wasn’t close enough to ‘jumping the shark,’ here’s the self-referential point where ‘Mahk’ went to work for the Chevy dealership that Mark Wahlberg had become part-owner of.
Needless to say, the character of ‘Mahk’ had clearly come full circle, exhausting Zebra Corner’s momentum in mocking Chevy’s campaign. But giving credit where credit is due, their parody was far more successful than the original campaign could have claimed to be.
Fiction Leads Fact
An interesting footnote to the ‘Real People, Not Actors’ story (as well as the parody it had inspired) is the all-too-expected reveal that the original campaign had been largely disingenuous. The not-quite-revelation came when one of the ‘real people’ (on the condition of anonymity) decided to break their NDA and spoke to spoke the A.V. Club about the true nature of the campaign.
Few people would be surprised by his claim that he was recruited by a nondescript agency, on the street, and offered $200 to appear at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Upon arrival, he was ushered into a big, dark room along with other unenthusiastic people; unaware of any cameras, or even the reason why they were in attendance. At that point, giant doors opened up to reveal a lit stage, garishly smiling presenter Potsch Boyd (aka ‘John’) standing there silently, and the approach of several cameras recording their initial reactions.
With nothing more than “Hi Guys” offered by (slightly-creepy, not-your-real-dad) Boyd, the group was then advised that they were going to be part of a Chevy commercial, triggering exactly the kind of forced composure you would expect of anyone who just realized they were on camera.
According to the anonymous source, each of the ‘real people’ were suddenly transformed into buzz-word spewing Chevy zealots, ready to grab whatever spotlight they could by attempting eloquent commentary, and saying whatever they thought might earn them screen-time. Then, after approximately two hours, the source claims that they were paid $150 in VISA Gift Cards with $50 to follow in the mail.
Not that anyone on the consumer side believed these subjects to be genuine, offering a frank assessment of Chevy’s compelling lineup — but then it’s easy to buy into the story offered by the A.V. Club’s anonymous source. After all, a GM representative had previously gone on record to confirm that L.A. recruits were far more likely to be struggling actors, willing to trade a fake smile for screen time and a quick payday.
No Real Surprises
While today’s world could hardly be credited with having obtained general enlightenment, we’ve come a lot further in the last decade-or-so thanks to the availability of information, and desire for checkable facts. An ever-growing number of professional wrestling and reality television fans have ascended to an understanding that their programs are scripted, as have those who might have previously believed that it was their votes that picked the next American Idol. The ‘Real People, Not Actors’ campaign was really no different. The majority of viewers knew damn well that the ads were disingenuous on some level, which rendered them (and especially the reactions of the subjects) immediately less credible.
Bottom-line, there’s a lot of avenues you can travel when it comes to marketing. But if you’re going to claim stake in reality, it better be real. Cinematic direction is one thing: a falsified premise is another. And thus, ‘Real People, Not Actors’ has been a huge fail on the part of Chevy’s marketing team.
That said, skip to 1:35 on this link and have one last laugh at Chevy’s expense.