Using Rosa Parks, Sept. 11 to Sell Chevy Trucks

A controversial new commercial for Chevy pickup trucks uses historical footage of icons like Rosa Parks and Richard Nixon, alongside images from Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack. Slate critic Seth Stevenson tries to understand Chevy's message.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

It's not unusual for car companies to use patriotic images in their ads, but a new TV commercial for Chevy trucks puzzles Slate ad critic Seth Stevenson and a lot of other TV viewers. Here's Seth.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Ad Critic, Slate.com): Sometimes an ad just makes you angry. Judging from my e-mail, Chevy's new spot for its Silverado pickup makes a lot of your extremely angry, and I'm with you.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

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Mr. STEVENSON: The ad features scenes of singer John Mellencamp strumming a guitar, intercut with a montage of iconic American moments.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

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Mr. JOHN MELLENCAMP (Singer): (Singing) Well, I stand beside ideals I think are right...

Mr. STEVENSON: There's Rosa Parks on a bus. There's Martin Luther King preaching to a crowd. We also see soldiers in Vietnam and Richard Nixon waving from his helicopter.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

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Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) This is our country.

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Mr. STEVENSON: Then we have some modern moments: New Orleans buried by Katrina floodwaters, the two towers of light commemorating 9/11.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

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Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) ...down the Dixie Highway, back home...

Mr. STEVENSON: Where does this all lead, as if you needed to ask?

(Soundbite of television commercial)

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Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) This is our country.

Mr. STEVENSON: It ends with a shot of a big, shiny pickup truck rolling through an open wheat field and then slowing to a carefully posed stop.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Announcer: This is our country.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) This is our country.

Unidentified Announcer: This is our truck.

Mr. STEVENSON: This ad is just wrong. It's not okay to use images of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, the Katrina disaster and 9/11 to sell pickup trucks. These images demand a little bit of reverence and some quiet contemplation. Please, Chevy, have a modicum of shame next time.

I should probably just leave it at that, but this isn't your basic flag-waving car commercial. It's mixes patriotic images with some heart-rending, shameful episodes from our past. And the ambiguity is heightened by the presence of John Mellencamp, a guy who blasted the Iraq War and President Bush in 2003 and whose songs used to explore the dark side of the American dream.

What does Chevy think it's doing in this commercial? A press release from its ad agency says it hopes it will inspire to think, quote, "Yeah, these are the bruises and scars that have shaped our nation, and we have rebuilt ourselves spiritually, emotionally and physically," unquote. Ambitious stuff. Let's break down the ad piece by piece.

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Mr. STEVENSON: Mellencamp sings: I can stand beside ideals I think are right...

(Soundbite of television commercial)

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Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Well, I stand beside ideals I think are right.

Mr. STEVENSON: ...while we see Rosa Park 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 beside 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? A sly statement about Iraq?

Next line: I do believe there's a dream for everyone. Here we see MLK, some dancing hippie-freaks at Woodstock and 1960s peace-marchers. Okay, so there's room in Chevy's worldview for anti-violence, too. But are we meant to celebrate America both for getting into Vietnam and for getting out of it?

The last part of the ad is where it gets introspective. We see Richard Nixon, post-resignation, about to leave the White House in disgrace - then some footage of raging California brush fires, Katrina floodwaters and the 9/11 memorial. Yikes.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) This is our country.

Mr. STEVENSON: I realize the notion being pushed here is that we'll face these hardships together and - aided perhaps by the hauling and towing capacity of a new Chevy Silverado - overcome them. To me, this spot feels more like the advertising equivalent of Jimmy Carter's malaise speech, an effort to address our crisis of confidence. I guess I'd ask Chevy how'd that strategy work out for Carter? I give this ad a D.

CHADWICK: Opinion from Seth Stevenson. He writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine Slate.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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