- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

A new television commercial promoting Chevrolet’s 2007 Silverado pickup starts benignly enough with a series of Americana-flavored vignettes: a New York street scene from the mid-20th century, Detroit automakers at work, a youngster playing with a Hula-Hoop — sewn together with rocker John Mellencamp’s new single, “Our Country.”

That’s where the ad should have stopped, some critics say.

Next flash images of Rosa Parks defiantly sitting at the front of a Montgomery, Ala., bus, Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, American soldiers in the Vietnam War and Hurricane Katrina destruction.

These latter scenes have caused some to accuse Chevrolet of exploiting American heroes and tragic events to sell trucks.

“It just belittles the struggle those people went through,” said Ronald Goodstein, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University. “I think Rosa Parks would not have seen her protest as a way to sell Chevy trucks.”

The ad debuted Sept. 30 and has repeatedly aired during the baseball playoffs, World Series and other sporting events.

Major news outlets, trade publications, talk radio shows and blogs have debated the commercial in recent days.

Michigan automotive analyst Laurie Harbour-Felax says the vast majority of Americans don’t seem bothered by the ad and that the controversy has been driven by a few liberal news sources.

“It’s a lot of hoke about nothing,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what GM, Ford or Chrysler do — the media will abuse … them.”

The debate intensified after Mr. Mellencamp’s Sunday appearance at Comerica Park in Detroit, when he sang “Our Country” before the start of the second Detroit Tigers-St. Louis Cardinals World Series game.

Chevrolet denies the ad is insensitive, saying the images, including those of Mrs. Parks, King, the Vietnam soldiers and Hurricane Katrina, are a retrospective of the past 50 years of U.S. history.

“We wanted to show both the good and the bad — just enough to make it a genuine kind of retrospective,” Chevrolet spokeswoman Melisa Tezanos said. “The American spirit is always overcoming [obstacles] — the ad is a celebration of the American resilience. And a lot of that is what pickup trucks are all about.”

Not to show images of American icons such as Mrs. Parks and King would be unfair, Ms. Tezanos added.

“What stays out makes as much of a statement as what stays in,” she said.

While Detroit automakers have never been shy to use patriotism to promote their trucks, some analysts say the Silverado campaign is a clear shot at Toyota and other Japanese automakers, who increasingly are manufacturing their vehicles in the U.S.

Ms. Harbour-Felax said she sees nothing wrong with the Silverado ad.

“They’re just trying to get people motivated about great American cars and trucks, and quite frankly, GM, Ford and Chrysler need that right now,” she said. “And if [using historic images] is what it takes, I’m all for it.”

But Mr. Goodstein said the Silverado ad risks alienating more Americans than it attracts.

Since Chevrolet’s parent company, General Motors, has publicly supported an initiative to build a national memorial in Washington honoring King, many in the company may see the ad as an extension of their effort to honor the slain civil rights leader, Mr. Goodstein said.

“However, that’s two different things,” he said. “While it may seem consistent internally [for GM] to say, ‘yeah, we can use Martin Luther King across all these different platforms,’ it doesn’t appear that way from a customer point of view.”

Chevrolet officials said they haven’t received many complaints about the ad and have no intention to withdraw or alter it.

“The consumer testing [on the ad] has been very positive,” Ms. Tezanos said.

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