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The Pickup Ad That's Carrying Lots of Baggage

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rosa Parks became an enduring symbol of the American civil rights movement after she refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., 51 years ago.

Today, Parks has posthumously become a pitchwoman for a line of pickup trucks.

Another civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr., also has been pressed into service by General Motors in a new TV commercial. The spot also includes images of President Richard Nixon, Muhammad Ali, the late race car driver Dale Earnhardt, some dancing hippies and a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The commercial for Chevrolet's Silverado truck has gotten plenty of airplay -- and a few expressions of surprise, shock and puzzlement -- since it went into heavy rotation during pro football games and the baseball playoffs over the past three weeks.

The ad mixes vintage photographs and news footage from the past half-century, accompanied by a rousing John Mellencamp song called "Our Country." Some of the images are uplifting, such as a photo of Parks sitting on a bus and a brief clip of King preaching. Others evoke painful memories, such as Nixon's wave from the presidential helicopter upon his resignation in 1974, U.S. troops in Vietnam, damage from Hurricane Katrina and the twin light beacons at the World Trade Center site that memorialized those killed in the attacks.

Chevrolet says the spot, called "Our Country. Our Truck," was created to highlight "key moments" in recent American history and is intended as a patriotic statement. By including positive and negative historic episodes, the ad is attempting to evoke the notion that "we've had some bruises and scars, yeah, but we've gotten up and gotten on with it," says Chevy spokeswoman Melisa Tezanos.

Says Tezanos: "The reason we can do this with the Chevy Silverado is because the whole spirit of the pickup is to get out there, throw stuff in the back and rebuild things."

A link between the Silverado's heritage and the events depicted in the commercial, however, might be a bit tenuous. The Silverado name dates only to the mid-1970s, well after some of the events in the ad occurred. Further, except for a shot of pickups juxtaposed with reconstruction efforts on the Gulf Coast, it's unclear what association the Silverado or pickup trucks generally have with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Nixon's presidency, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Historians might also find a somewhat muddled message in the syncing of Mellencamp's lyrics with the ad's images. As the pop singer (who appears briefly in the ad) croons, "I can stand beside ideals I think are right," pictures of Parks and scenes of happy families flash by. But the next line -- "I can stand beside the idea to stand and fight" -- is accompanied by shots of Vietnam combat and Ali, suggesting approval for both the war and for the boxer who resisted being drafted into it. (Mellencamp's manager offered the song to Chevy after it was written, according to Automotive News.)

Nevertheless, Tezanos said the commercial has generated an "overwhelmingly positive" response from consumers.

This group clearly does not include Carie Lemack, a co-founder of Families of September 11, an organization formed by relatives of those who died in the terror attacks. Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was a passenger on one of the jets that terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, frames her response to the ad as a question: "Have we become so accustomed to exploiting people's pain that it is acceptable for a company to make money using images of it?"

Lemack says that when she first heard about the commercial, "the the first thing that ran through my mind was 'Why would Mom's murder be used to sell trucks?' . . . I hope that anyone that chooses to use images of 9/11 and other tragedies does it with the intention of making sure those tragedies never happen again. This ad does not do that. It uses the images gratuitously, with the sole intention of evoking strong emotions."

Attempts to cash in on King's image have proven controversial before. In 2001, the King family sparked criticism by licensing footage of the "I Have a Dream" speech to a French telecommunications firm, Alcatel, which ran a commercial on American television showing King speaking to an empty Mall (the ad's theme was about "making connections").

But Clayborne Carson, the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, sees King's and Parks's inclusion in advertising as progress. "Advertisers always want to associate themselves with patriotic images," he said. "Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are now part of that pantheon of patriotic iconography. That certainly would not have been the case 40 years ago."

Chevy says it used King's and Park's images with the permission of their estates, which were paid an unspecified fee by the carmaker.

Several callers to the NAACP's national offices in Baltimore last week were "enraged" by the commercial, says Richard McIntire, the organization's spokesman. The NAACP hasn't taken an official position on the ad, but McIntire said: "I'm not exactly sure what the message is. I thought it was going to end up with Chevy talking about various philanthropic things they've done, instead of just showing a pickup hauling away trash from the hurricane. I have really mixed feelings about it."

As controversial as some of the images in the Chevy commercial might be, Tezanos confirms reports that Chevy considered using footage of an atomic bomb explosion. The intent was to signify the beginning of the nuclear era, but Chevy's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald of suburban Detroit, removed it, in part because it might offend Japanese Americans.

As Tezanos puts it, "It evoked too many associations that were not in the spirit of the ad."

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