In the wake of this week’s GM bankruptcy, the media is generating a lot of biographical sketches of impacted employees, dealers, communities, and customers. On that note, I’d like to do a “shout out” to those creative folks who contributed to our collective memory such classic mind-candy as “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet,” “The Heartbeat of America,” and “Like a Rock.”
But this is a story that goes back a lot longer than any of us can remember. GM’s “marriage” to Detroit-based ad agency Campbell-Ewald has its roots in a century-long relationship dating back to around 1907, when Alfred P. Sloan, president of the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company, gave ad man Frank Campbell Hyatt’s account. When “Billy” Durant, the flamboyant founder of General Motors acquired Hyatt in 1916, Al Sloan was made a GM vice president. By 1919, Campbell-Ewald was running Chevrolet ads in newspapers across the country. By the time Sloan replaced Durant as president of GM in 1923, the Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, GM Truck, and Oakland Motor Car accounts were also consolidated at the Campbell-Ewald shop.
In those early years, Chevy was by far Campbell-Ewald’s biggest challenge. According to the Antique Automobile Club of America, “…the Ford Model T accounted for just under 52% of cars produced in the U.S” in 1923. Campbell-Ewald’s campaigns met the Model T head-on with ads that promoted price and pushed the cost value of the Chevrolet. Did the ads work? In 1927, the annual sales of Chevrolet surpassed those of Ford.
One of Campbell Ewald’s greatest innovations—and profit-generators—was making Chevrolet the first automobile manufacturer to advertise on the fledgling medium of television. According to a 2008 profile of the agency in Automotive News, “By the late ’50s, the agency was making about 2,000 broadcast commercials a year and producing programs such as ‘The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.’”
While my baby boom contemporaries would probably rather forget GM models like the Chevy Vega, Cadillac Cimarron, Buick Reatta, and the Pontiac Aztek, nothing that we did in the 1960s will enable us to purge our aging brain cells of Campbell-Ewald’s most memorable tagline: “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”
Ironically, this week’s nationalization of GM brings an entirely new meaning to the tagline: “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet … AS AN OWNER!”