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Rating : *** CHEVY CLAIMS 'GENUINE' ICON STATUS SELF-PROCLAIMED RENAISSANCE GETS OFF TO A GOOD START IN AD

By Published on .

Chevrolet television advertising has never been about cars. It has always been about us.

In the '50s, "See the USA in Your Chevrolet" was a product of the optimistic, open road-motoring era ofdiscovery. "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet" reflected the inward-turning, self-validating, ritually xenophobic mid-'70s, when American society was extorted by OPEC and shown up by the Japanese. Now come the mid-'90s, and once again here's Chevy chasing the Zeitgeist, that spectral vision of cultural preoccupation that so maddeningly seems to vanish the moment it is within grasp.

This time the target is our growing fascination with authenticity, as earlier detected by everyone from Miller Brewing and Anheuser-Busch to Ralph Lauren, the Gap and Levi Strauss-to say nothing of aspirin, meat, salsa and briefs. The spirit of thetimes favors that which is real, that which has heritage, that which endures. Hence the long-awaited repositioning of the Chevrolet Motor Division with a campaign themed "Genuine Chevrolet."

And the initial effort, from Lintas Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., is genuinely good.

Billed as no less than the declaration of a corporate renaissance, the company's latest attempt to define itself as an extension of its customers is striking immediately forwhat it lacks: the obligatory rockified anthem. Instead, the 2-minute lifestyle montage opens on a dusky meadow landscape, with frolicking children and their balloons silhouetted against the lavender horizon.

"You've probably never thought much about it," says the pointedly conversational voice-over, "but chances are, at one time or another, you've had a Chevy in your life. Maybe it was an old truck you and your friends piled into on Friday nights. Or the car you drove away in on your wedding day. Maybe it was the first car you bought with your own money. Or maybe it's a car that, after all these years, you still dream of owning-someday. Whatever your story is, Chevy's probably been a part of it."

Meantime, you get all of the shots you'd expect to see in an ad fleshing out the Chevys in your past: the auto show, the lovers lane, the dusty farm lane where the 15-year-old is learning, shakily and swervily, to drive. There are even shots alluding to Chevy's history in your fantasy life, including a soaring, weirdly suicidal "Thelma & Louise" cliff plunge into a river canyon. In aggregate, these images attempt to reach beyond nostalgia. They seek to cement an emotional bond that has been frayed by 20 years of exploitation and neglect.

And to begin anew: "Not just because more people drive Chevrolets than any other brand," the voice-over continues, "but because we've always believed what it's all about is finding the car or truck you love, no matter where you are in life or how much you have to spend. It's getting you the safety, comfort and style you expect, for just a little less than you'd expect to pay. It's being dependable enough to have 36 million people driving around with a Chevy emblem on their front end. It's realizing that, while body styles and paint colors may change, the right way to treat a customer doesn't. It's called `Genuine Chevrolet.'*"

It's saying, in effect: Please fondly remember what we've meant to you. Enjoy the new us. But please disregard the past 20 years. They were an oversight on our part.

On the matter of product credibility, the rollout of the new Lumina sedan and other model launches will soon tell. On customer service, well, we'll believe it when we see it. But certainly on the claim of heritage, the company has an undeniable stake.

For decades, with the '57 Belair and the '63 Corvette and even the '70 Impala, Chevy was more or less the official car of the post war American experience. It was one of the rare consumer items, along with Coca-Cola and Levi's, that transcended its category to become an icon of the culture. Yet it wasn't until "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie ..." that this astonishingly trenchant reality materialized in Chevy advertising- and by then the value and dependability that had propelled Chevy to the pantheon had already been sacrificed at the altar of General Motors Corp.'s marketing arrogance.

The theme of cultural transcendence was to be distilled still further with "Heartbeat of America," a campaign that, for the past seven years, has been a catchy, buoyant lie. For America's sake, let us hope the Chevrolet Motor Division, with its free-falling market share and second-rate product line, was not the pulse of our nation. What Chevy called "Heartbeat" was more like an echocardiogram, registering indistinct soundings of a vital force far removed, not in flesh but in time.

But if the decline of Chevrolet was one of the saddest spectacles in the history of industrialized America, the company's renaissance could be the most inspiring. This 2-minute announcement of rebirth-call it the Saturnization of Chevrolet-is, as advertised, a defining moment. It is also a last chance.

When they said they were apple pie and the pulse of life, it was just talk. Now they have laid claim to our very selves, and if the claim is not genuine, America may finally cease to forgive.

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