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In Chevrolet’s Advertising, Everything “Runs Deep” Except Integrity, or Why I Can’t Salute “The Salute”

June 11, 2011

I remember thinking after September 11 that it wouldn’t be long until we saw advertising that shamelessly played on the profound emotions of that pervasive national moment. But, at least as I recall, that onslaught never really arrived. I do recall a Budweiser commercial in which the famous Clydesdales marched a long distance only to pause and bow before the forever-altered Manhattan skyline. To their partial credit, Anheuser-Busch bought air time for the commercial only once, during the 2002 Super Bowl. However, the spot, called “Respect,” was still a fairly brazen—and false—effort to imbue their brand with a kind of holy reverence that only flesh-and-blood human beings actually feel with no agenda. Said another way, Budweiser made that commercial not only to pay respect to the tragedy’s victims, but also because they wanted to be seen by millions of paying customers while they paid respect to the tragedy’s victims. If that visibility weren’t on their agenda, Anheuser-Busch would have donated that same money it used to make and air the commercial to a September 11 victims’ fund, and not a single damn one of us would have known about it.

Fast forward 10 years. American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq now number 6,000, and roughly another 40,000 have been wounded. That is, at minimum, 46,000 American men and women whose bodies have been either mangled or destroyed. 46,000 American lives either ended or forever disrupted. 6,000 American families with fewer members; 46,000 American families with greater burdens to carry. At minimum—the number is surely higher because combat and post-combat suicides aren’t factored into many casualty counts and aren’t recognized with a presidential letter of condolence. By the way, I believe that blind eye to what “casualty” actually means is criminally cruel, and it should end now.

For all of the affected, federally recognized or not, there is no “back to normal.” For families of soldiers killed in action, the new normal is pain, loss, struggle, loneliness, and grief, tempered for some, but not all, by the notion that their beloved died in service of timeless ideals and a higher calling. For families of wounded soldiers, the new normal is often observing a loved one endure physical and psychological devastation, uncertain and halting rehabilitation, night terrors, addictions, hallucinations, baffling irrationality, frightening anger, repeated defeat, slow decline. The wounded soldier’s child grows up hearing about honor, duty, and sacrifice, but only one of those—sacrifice, spread across the entire family, every day—transcends the status of empty abstraction. A kid who sees his father with half his body blown off would rather see Dad walk than to see him be saluted as “honorable” by those who have borne none of the burden of sacrifice.

I know this because I was one of those kids; my Dad, one of those wounded soldiers. On our mailbox at my childhood home, my Dad’s name was listed, along with his military rank (corporal) and his discharge status (retired). My Dad was “retired” for the last 52 years of his life because he lost his right arm and his right leg in Korea. At his homecoming from the war, he was literally half the man he used to be, and “disabled veteran” was a core piece of his identity every day thereafter. The only other roles with any degree of centrality in his life were “husband” and “father,” but the complications of being a “disabled veteran” undercut his ability to fulfill any other obligation, especially as he grew older.

Because of both the military and familial components of his identity, though I doubt he ever knew it because I spent most of my time avoiding or angry with him, my Dad was the center of my universe for the first 30 years of my life. It took me that long to realize that I had become who I was—for better or worse, mostly worse at the time—solely because I was my father’s son. [I made it that far mostly because I was my mother’s son, but that’s another story for another day.] I became a man who possessed some measure of competence to live well—spiritually, not materially—only when all those truths finally revealed themselves in the first couple of years after my Dad’s death in 2005, and I was able to start working on understanding, acceptance, and eventual love of who he actually was rather than regret over who he could never be.

So that’s my “military story.” That’s what a “soldier’s return to the homefront” has meant to me for most of my life.

The rest of what I have to say has nothing to do with my feelings (not one-sided, by the way) about the legitimacy or wisdom of America’s military endeavors in the 2000s. My reaction to Chevrolet’s “The Salute” commercial isn’t political; it’s personal. I saw the commercial on TV a few times in May, and I’ve watched it several times on Youtube since then, and my reaction remains the same. How dare you, Chevrolet. Shame on you, Chevrolet.

Chevrolet, how dare you so callously strive to link your brand to one of the most special and intimate moments a family can have? How dare you hint that a Chevrolet automobile has somehow contributed to the strong, strapping soldier/father’s safe homecoming? Also, shame on you for your shallow and dishonest version of  what war can do to soldiers and to military families. Shame on you for visually defining “military homecoming” in the most idealized picture-book form imaginable, ignoring the plain fact that not every soldier returns home unscarred and unbroken. And finally, shame on you, Chevrolet, for continuing to run “The Salute” whenever and wherever you could—even Anheuser Busch post-9/11 didn’t stoop that low.

You may ask what I’d have Chevrolet do instead. Should they show flag-shrouded caskets being loaded off a transport plane in the dead of night? Should they show families slogging through vicious bureaucracy to get VA medical coverage for clearly (though perhaps not 100% demonstrably) combat-related health problems? Should they show pill bottles and stump socks and open wounds, both physical and emotional? Should they show aged disabled veterans still lost in the fog of war, either talking to or running from phantoms?

No, of course not. Chevrolet would never sell cars or build brand affinity that way, and I actually don’t wish them ill in that effort, especially if their success means more jobs in American towns and more investment in sustainable, efficient auto technology. I guess what galls me is that Chevrolet seemed to believe, without hesitation or shame, that a tiny bump in their approval ratings justified such profound exploitation of America’s service men and women and their families.

What I’d have Chevrolet do is to display some integrity. Use your commercials to tell me why a Chevy is a good car, and leave military families alone while doing so. Our soldiers and their families do enough for their country already. Your branding campaign is one battle they shouldn’t have to fight.

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10 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink
    June 12, 2011 12:21 pm

    It is just a commercial and onley a commercial. We must look at the positive and not all the negative. We know there is much sadness in war and I thank the service men and women out there in defending this great country of ours. So don’t take it personally. It’s just a commercial.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    June 12, 2011 4:37 pm

    Indeed, it is a very powerful commercial as it elicits one’s emotions. Good job for the creator of this film.

  3. Lloyd permalink
    June 12, 2011 5:53 pm

    Thank you for your comments. I agree that it’s a powerful commercial that is very effective at eliciting emotion. I’m sure those emotions are mostly positive for individuals and families who have sent loved ones off to war and then had the great joy to welcome them home after one or more tours. But in this case, I felt compelled to discuss “all the negative” because the Chevrolet commercial is based entirely on pretending the negative aspects of military homecoming don’t exist. I just can’t allow a commercial that cynically cashes in on our shared national reverence for our military service members to go uncriticized.

    Of course, this isn’t the first commercial that manipulates the viewer’s emotions to achieve the desired effect. But to me it stands out for the extent to which the emotional subject matter and the product itself are unrelated. The love and gratitude we all feel for our soldiers just has nothing to do with a Chevrolet car or truck. You know that ASPCA commercial with the images of the abused puppies and the sad Sarah McLachlan song in the background? Imagine if that same commercial weren’t for an organization that works to prevent animal cruelty, but for a toothpaste or potato chip company. That’s what I see in the Chevrolet commercial, and because of my personal connection to the emotional subject matter, I can’t do anything BUT take it personally and critically assess it.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    June 12, 2011 6:59 pm

    Chevrolet did not create the commercial.

  5. Lloyd permalink
    June 12, 2011 8:07 pm

    What a silly thing to say. Of course “Chevrolet” did not create the commercial, as “Chevrolet” is a brand extension of General Motors and not a creative entity. However, the individuals who did create the commercial are acting on behalf of Chevrolet to promote the brand, and Chevrolet/General Motors executives are the ones who chose to buy air time for the commercial.

    If not Chevrolet and General Motors, at whom else would you propose I direct my objections to this advertising content? At the actor who played the returning soldier? At the lighting crew? At the factory workers who built the Chevrolet that drives up in front of the house?

  6. Anonymous permalink
    June 12, 2011 8:26 pm

    The only hand Chevrolet or GM has in this is paying for air time. This was a fun project of one man creative mind. Chevrolet liked the message and were moved by the story. The best part of this is your moved by it too and you’ll never forget the ad. To the Creator of the commercial: Great Story telling. Keep up the great work.

  7. Adam permalink
    June 21, 2011 3:30 pm

    No, no. Folks, we can’t allow this to become a trend in the marketing community. I am a soldier who has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and I was instantly offended by this ad. It’s patronizing to try to associate a product or brand with service members unaffiliated with military service. We don’t have sponsorship deals with these companies. We are being exploited. Regardless of the portrayal of service member, good or bad, the action is equally immoral and the affiliation of products dishonest.

    • Adam permalink
      June 21, 2011 3:37 pm

      Correction: It’s patronizing to try to associate a product or brand with service members as if they are somehow endorsed by the military

      • Lloyd permalink
        June 23, 2011 8:41 am

        Adam, I really appreciate your comment, especially since it comes from a personal perspective vastly more informed than mine.

        I couldn’t exactly tell from your comments whether your tours have ended and you’re now back home, or whether you’re still deployed. Wherever you are, godspeed to you, and thank you for your service.

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