Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No room to maneuver

So last week Chevrolet made headlines for its half-hearted attempt to get its employees to stop using the nickname “Chevy.” Noting that the company has “a proud heritage behind us and a fantastic future ahead of us” (standard corporate rhetoric that always leaves out any mention of an inconvenient, contested present), the authors of a memo on the subject tried to make a case that good branding demands absolute—one might say totalitarian—consistency.

A startled worker leaked the memo to the New York Times and there was some predictable public pushback. One online commenter who goes by the monicker “JoeProBono” noted, “The people, not the company called those cars Chevy.” The people having spoken, Chevrolet quickly retracted the directive, which had included the hackneyed idea of putting a plastic can labeled “Chevy” in the hallway to collect a quarter every time the banned term was used (the memo-writers noted that the money collected would be used to fund “a team-building activity”).

There’s lots that could be said about this in relation to heritage, but one thing that jumped out at me was that the brand-alignment effort was one of the first projects of the corporation’s new advertising firm, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which was recently hired after Chevy severed its relationship with Detroit-based Campbell-Ewald. That relationship had lasted, amazingly, for 91 years, since 1922.

Campbell-Ewald grew up with the Detroit car industry and was responsible for such iconic Chevrolet campaigns as "The Heartbeat of America," "Like a Rock," and "An American Revolution.” And its early history, while perhaps not as familiar, was hugely influential in shaping how Americans relate to cars. In the 1920s, under CEO Alfred Sloan, Chevrolet’s parent company General Motors successfully challenged Henry Ford’s dominance by introducing the idea that people should trade in their cars every few years whether the cars still ran or not—anathema to Ford’s frugal notion of keeping vehicles on the road as long as possible. Sloan, abetted by the growing advertising industry, positioned the GM brands in a way that quickly made annual styling and planned obsolescence the way of the American automobile, to such an extent that it’s still seldom challenged or even remarked on—truly, a legacy that most of us are affected by without realizing it.

I have to wonder whether the firing of Campbell-Ewald had anything to do with the embarrassment that resulted from the agency’s 2006 campaign promoting the Tahoe SUV. Somewhat clumsily embracing the world of social media, the campaign invited people to make their own Tahoe ad using a “Chevy Apprentice” program that offered a set repertoire of video clips and music. 20,000 ads flooded in, including about 400 that took advantage of the relative openness of the format to make spoof ads. One presented the Tahoe as a fetishized god and many referenced global warming (what in the world was Chevy thinking, including an image of the Tahoe on a glacier?).

400 out of 20,000 isn’t many—just 2%. But a 2% opening for challenging the hegemony of the car is still something. And it’s better than taking people to task for uttering forbidden words or trying to argue—as Chevy’s new ad agency Goodby, Silverstein does on its website—that “the sense of craft and surprise we associate with art” is fully compatible with the service of capitalism. In fact, that sense of surprise—the carnivalesque spirit that gleefully subverted the Tahoe ad generator and that creates at least some space for reimagining and revivifying aspects of culture—is deeply antithetical to the kind of corporate thinking that can’t possibly question the bases of its own existence. It’s easy to picture executives at bailed-out General Motors saying, “We desperately need fresh thinking—get us a new ad agency,” but almost impossible to envision them creatively engaging with the histories that got us to the oil- and car-dependent state we’re in now, let alone radically re-tooling for a different kind of future. The pathetic attempt to abolish the use of the “Chevy” name—pathetic because it was so unnecessary and so clearly doomed to failure—is a small but suggestive signal of a tottering industry, led by people who don’t dare utter big truths and so are reduced to little acts of control that are the managerial equivalent of patching holes in a wall that’s beginning to give way.