"Our Country," the latest single from the artist formerly known as Cougar, is the theme to the company's latest ad, being played ubiquitously during commercial breaks of recent televised sporting events. It's off JM's forthcoming album, "Freedom's Road," due in February (it's his first in five years).
On the one hand, the ad is more than a little creepy, especially when it tries to connect the troubles of an SUV-dealing American automaker to the 1960s struggle for Civil Rights.
On the other, if you can't get airplay on the radio or "Veronica Mars," what's a middle-aged recording artist to do?
The Times article follows the jump.
By DAVID CARR, The New York Times
Before the second game of the World Series, the singer John Mellencamp warmed up the crowd with “Our Country,” a paean to American greatness. Sports fans could be forgiven for having a bit of déjà vu, having heard the same chorus in heavy rotation during college football, N.F.L. football and now the World Series, as a backdrop to a commercial to the new Chevrolet Silverado.
Consumers are used to General Motors wrapping itself in the flag, having been variously urged to “Keep America Rolling” for “An American Revolution” and to listen to “The Heartbeat of America.” But this new version of patriotism took on a more desperate air, all but setting the flag on fire to honor it.
As the commercial begins, an industrial history rolls out, touching the usual icons of the Statue of Liberty, busy factory workers and Americans at their leisure. But then a more conflicted narrative emerges, quickly flashing on bus boycotts, Vietnam, Nixon resigning, Hurricane Katrina, fires, floods, then the attacks of Sept. 11, replete with firefighters.
All that’s missing is a plague of locusts, until the commercial intones “This is our country, this is our truck” as a large Silverado emerges from amber waves of grain.
The message seems to be that, even though America has been in the ditch several times during its history, it has always managed to pull itself out. And what is true for the country must be true for General Motors. It could be pointed out that Detroit and General Motors are in a ditch mostly because they drove there, ignoring global competition and consumer needs in pursuit of quarterly profits. But the back story of the disaster is obscured by the universal need to rebound.
Critics have attacked the ad, in part because it also invokes Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to sell trucks. But something more subtle, perhaps more cynical, may be at work here: the image of America (and its leading auto manufacturer) as victim, mostly of itself, but still worth loving.
“The first time I saw it, I thought, holy mackerel, they are using negative images to generate positive emotions,” said Bob Garfield, the advertising critic of Advertising Age. “I have never seen that in a commercial.”
“I feel a little violated when I watch it,” he said. “I don’t mind when they have a tent sale on President’s Day, but those guys have been dead for 200 years. I’m not sure I’m ready for a Rosa Parks sale-a-bration.”
Kim Kosak, director of advertising and sales promotion at Chevrolet, said there was no thought given to drawing a parallel between the struggles of a nation and the struggles of a corporate icon.
“We never discussed that or thought about it,” she said in a phone interview. “The idea was that the pickup consumer is honest, hardworking, authentic and real. In order to be real and honest, we needed to show the scars and bruises, as well as the triumphs, of this country in order to be true.”
As a piece of television craft and song craft — I’m humming that sucker in spite of myself — “This is our country” is a gorgeous, A.D.D. version of Ken Burns’s best work. But it is landing with a thud in the advertising community, and not just because it achieved the impossible: making viewers nostalgic for Chevy’s last anthem, Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.”
“The message seems to be, ‘If you don’t buy our truck, we will go bankrupt,’ ” said Al Ries of Ries & Ries, a brand consultancy. “The kind of people who buy trucks are not going to buy them because a company is in trouble. People like to buy from winners.”
Jerry Della Femina, who runs an ad agency in New York, says he believes the spot is something of a new low.
“You see all these moving images and at the end of it, all you get is a lousy Chevy truck,” he said. Mr. Della Femina called the ad “manipulative” and said it suggested that G.M. was “somehow coming up from the depths.”
National travail obviously touches the heartstrings and it’s hardly surprising that Sept. 11 became a theme in political advertising. At the Republican National Convention in 2004, Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose finest hour occurred during those attacks, recalled in his speech that he confided to Bernard B. Kerik as the towers fell, “Thank God George Bush is our president.”
But what works in politics may be dangerous in commerce. Who didn’t feel a little dirty participating in the group hug watching the first N.F.L. game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? And while Robert De Niro’s commercial about New York — including his reference to ground zero as “my heartbreak” was evocative — it was used as a branding moment for American Express.
And now we have Mr. Mellencamp, who’s done some rebranding of his own, having dropped the “Cougar” from his name back when his image needed a folksy turn. His political values seem equally elastic. He and his spouse once wrote a jeremiad against the Bush administration that said, in part: “It is time to take back our country. Take it back from political agendas, corporate greed and overall manipulation.”
That was in 2003. Now he’s sitting on the fender of a Chevy truck, strumming a guitar and singing, “Well, I can stand beside ideals I think are right, and I can stand beside the idea to stand and fight.” He can also stand beside a nice shiny truck, if the fee is right.
A few days ago, Gawker, the Manhattan media site, ran a picture of a bar advertising, “The happiest happy hour south of ground zero.” Whether or not the statement is clinically true — a bit tough to measure, that — the message was beyond crass and deserved our contempt.
When it comes to selling bars, trucks or even politicians, you can wave the flag or you can drape one over a coffin. You can’t do both.