Pop culture: Chevy sings praises of its role in history

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It started as a billboard for a classic car event in Detroit that read, "They don't write songs about Volvos."

But they do pen tunes about Chevy-200 and counting, and the General Motors Corp. brand is counting. Those ditties have become part of an integrated campaign referencing Chevrolet's place in popular culture that began last June. It hasn't lifted sliding sales, but Chevy, believing the effort reinforces its classic image and gives the brand an aura of aspiration, is keeping with the concept and expanding it to motorsports advertising.

On Memorial Day weekend, four new TV spots break on ABC's broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 featuring drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and music stars ZZ Top ("Hallelujah Chevrolet"), Bon Jovi ("99 in the Shade") and Shania Twain ("You Win My Love"). Aside from the motorsports executions, at least two other new spots are coming from Chevy's shop, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Ewald, Warren, Mich. One, showcasing the Impala SS, uses the Beach Boys' track "409." In the other, a studio group covered Bob Cass' `50s classic "Corvette Baby" to commemorate the sports car's 50th anniversary.

"There isn't anyone else who could do this campaign," boasts Jim Jandesek, director-car advertising and sales promotion at Chevy. "We didn't put Chevrolet in those songs. Our culture did."

The ads are "all about authenticity and reminding some of the target audience, and for others it's reclaiming our rightful place as the icon of car culture," said Bill Ludwig, chief creative officer at Campbell-Ewald.

"General Motors made cars about a dream, a myth, a lifestyle," said Robert Thompson, professor of public communications at Syracuse University, who teaches a course on cars in Western society. "They really did usher in the automobile culture because they put the culture into it. The `57 Chevy became so emblematic of the rock and roll era."

He said the social drivers that started the car culture-passage into adulthood as symbolized by a drivers' license, the experience of going fast, defying care and caution-still apply. "All of that is as true today as back when they were making tail fins."

Mr. Ludwig, in fact, said today's trendsetters are souping up (or "tricking out" in GenY speak) Chevys for drag races, complete with deejays and dancers on the side. "It's very similar to [the movie] `The Fast and the Furious,"' he said. These so-called Tuner clubs are "mirroring what happened in `50s when cars and Chevy became a symbol of mobility," he said, except that instead of grease monkeys kids are "cybermonkeys."

Adding touches for the cyber-savvy, Chevy is expanding its chevy.com microsite with games and polls to vote for a favorite and missed Chevy song, and is looking into a deal with a cellular company for downloadable Chevy song ringtones. Other plans include college campus and youth events, a repeat of its 1.2 million circulation customized Rolling Stone calendar and a possible "Making of the calendar" program on Viacom's VH1 or MTV. The automaker is also considering music videos of Chevy songs. "We've had offers from a couple of artists to use their product in music videos," said Andrea Wells, group senior VP-Chevrolet car director.

Already, Chevy has partnered with the Wenner Media title, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Gibson Guitar for the Chevrolet Rock & Roll Tour. The 18-month tour, which makes 27 stops through the fall, offers a rock memorabilia museum that includes historic Gibsons, classic and new Chevrolets.

opportunity sought

Dealers will be giving out a CD compilation of the songs Chevrolet has licensed, and the ad agency is scouting out an opportunity with a producer of original MTV programming to develop a rock-based program on America's love affair with Chevy, said Ms. Wells.

The question, though, is whether all this nostalgia sells. Since Chevrolet launched the effort in June 2002, the brand has struggled. Chevrolet said it sold 543,390 vehicles in the first quarter of 2003, a 16% drop from the comparable 2002 period. Sales during the quarter slid for both cars (off 7.7%) and trucks (down 19.8%).

Of the current crop of vehicles on the road, GM's Cadillac SUVs appear to be winning the muse category; a random sampling of rap lyrics and videos shows them to be the vehicular must-have for today's hip-hop generation.

But Ms. Wells described sales as "solid."

"The things we're noticing are in upticks in key measures we hoped to impact, including vehicles you aspire to own," she said. Mr. Jandesek said Chevy has post-tested the ad campaign and it has hit all its targets.

Meanwhile, chansons for Chevrolet continue-from all genres of music. "It's a phenomenon that happens every single day," said Ms. Wells, citing new songs referencing the brand being released in the coming months from rock/rap group Limp Bizkit, rap group Outkast and country singer Deanna Carter, who sings about being a Chevy girl.

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