The Appeal of Chevrolet By Ben Sullivan

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were ripe with automakers such as Oldsmobile, Spicer Winton, Studebaker and the likes of Ford, Buick, and Chevrolet. Early automotive companies experimented with various designs and fuel sources such as steam and electric, but the gasoline engine won the day. The car became a spectacle in America. People flocked to car shows to see automobiles up close and personal. A wave of advertising came with the new wave of cars. Automakers needed to attract the customers through whatever means possible to turn a profit. Car brochures such Chevrolet’s “Little Six ” above, became commonplace. The brochures usually had a picture of the car and lengthy descriptions of the cars design. Car advertisements even appeared in Barnum & Bailey's Circus (Harter).

Car shows and races became an American pastime. In order to attract customers and engender brand loyalty, car companies rolled out seemingly countless advertisements in the form or fliers, brochures, car shows, sponsorships, and television commercials. Chevrolet’s thoughtful and careful use of text, visual, and audio elements in their advertisements to appeal to potential customer's conscious and subconscious desires has positively influenced their target audiences and contributed to the brand's longevity from the early 20th century to the present day.

Advertisements spurred wary consumers to buy cars in in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this time period cars varied vastly in their design, structure and method of propulsion. Today, one has the luxury of buying cars from companies that have a reputation built upon decades of experience. However, at the time consumers needed to decide between relatively untested designs. Convincing car advertisements contributed to the consumer’s impulse to buy these new cars. Initially advertisements focused on convincing consumers that cars were safe and, in particular, that their model was the safest. Companies could not trust the general public to distinguish between a well-made car and a shabbily built car. Hence, early advertisements went into thorough detail on the design of their car and even into the production process (Harter).

The 1913 “Little Six” ad on the far left (above) provides readers with a profile view of the car and concise descriptions of the major design components of the vehicle, such as the motor, transmission, braking system, and price. The middle pictures depict the Chevrolet “product experience,” which Chevrolet brags requires “no introduction.” The ad describes the driving experience qualitatively and supports it with a balance of pictures and vehicle schematics complete with a well-organized table of vehicle specifications. The picture on the far right is another “Little Six” advertisement that displays a detailed view of the chassis design and the engine. The previous advertisements all took into account the audience’s need for reassurance in the form of information about the potential product. However, the need to inform the consumers would dwindle and focus would shift to subconscious persuasion and incentivizing the target audience to buy their product.

Every advertisement has a particular target audience. In the early 20th century, Chevrolet marketed it’s cars to primarily middle and upper class American households. Usually, the man of the house controlled the finances and major decision-making. At the time, buying a car was a major decision, and the man would often have the final say. Additionally, Chevrolet’s decided to narrow the target audience to men, using references to a male’s responsibility to provide for and protect his family. The following clip is a portion of a film produced by Chevrolet called "No Ghosts," which was played at car shows to convince potential customers to buy their cars.

The speaker cultivates an interest in the foundation of the car by invoking the parallel between how the foundation of a house can falter and likewise that of a car’s chassis. A house must withstand an earthquake, but a car must “withstand and earthquake every second, or oftener.” At the time, it was a man’s responsibility to maintain his house as well as his car. Below, the speaker logically presents the potential vehicle failures of bad designs with another clip that supports his claim that Chevrolet has strong frames. He points out potential vehicle failures and offers viable solutions.

The alliteration strong, sturdy, support, and strain as descriptions form a dual purpose: they form a sense of unity in the piece, while also catering to a lower intelligence audience and maintaining a level of engineering expertise needed to convey the strength of Chevrolet's design.

The importance of detailed descriptions of designs and or illustrations of car components dwindled as cars became commonplace in many households. Short and concise testimonials or pictures depicting content customers accomplished the same goal without the downsides of being misunderstood or going above the audience’s education level. The 1935 ad (background) shows a man telling his friend that he “wants [his family] to have the safest car that money can buy.” The ad doesn’t actually prove that Chevrolet has the safest car that money can buy, but leaves it up to the reader to infer. Jib Fowles wrote a particularly insightful essay on the fifteen emotional needs to which advertisements appeal. The preceding ad makes a distinct appeal to the need for safety, which Fowles notices, “we naturally want to do whatever it takes to starve off threats to our well-being, and to our families’ ”(Fowles, 72). In order to protect one’s family, one will buy the safest car one can afford.

In 1953 Chevrolet produced an ad (background) that claims that in can seat a “whole baseball team beautifully.” Baseball was and still is an important and influential pastime that evokes fond memories of games from childhood. The ad invokes the association between the fond memories of baseball and the promise of fond memories with Chevrolet. Chevrolet intends the two to go hand in hand.

In 1955, Chevrolet produced the ad (left), which illustrates a spacious white washed house that is also presumably desirable due to the circular window above the Romanesque pillared front door. The windows are open and one or more people are looking down at the driveway from all the windows and door to see the yellow Chevrolet Bel Air Hardtop. The ad captions the illustration with “How to look your best when everybody’s looking.” The ad addresses the target audience’s need for prominence and attention. Fowles describes the need for attention as the “desire to exhibit ourselves in such a way as to make others look at us… a primitive, insuppressible instinct”(Fowles, 71). Will buying the Bel Air Hardtop complete or complement one’s expensive looking house, or does the action of buying it give oneself the feeling of self-worth? The ad surely leaves these questions up to the viewer. Ten years later in 1965, Chevrolet produced the ad (right), which shows a woman tanning on top of the Caprice on the beach. Caprice is a French word that can be translated as a whim, or sudden desire. The ad makes a subconscious association between the attractive body of the women and the stylish interior of the Chevrolet Caprice. The appeal for sex particularly to a masculine audience is powerful, yet as Fowles notes is “to be used sparingly,… and unambiguous sex is rare in [advertising]”(Fowles, 65). The subconscious references to sex carry the power of incentivizing a product while not overshadowing the message with sexual displays that would distract the audience from the primary message: to buy the product.

In 1970, Chevrolet produced a Cheyenne commercial, which draws upon the cultural identification with America's working class. The ad depicts the seeming “abuse” of the Cheyenne towing 187 tons of logs along a road, a sum far exceeding the recommended limit. The commercial is set somewhere in the mountains, and the exact scene seems to be at the bottom of one of the valleys. The slogan “Building a better way to serve the USA,” complete with the neat animation of driving rivets into the Chevy logo creates a cultural appeal to the American working class, which can associate with the depictions.

In 2016, Chevrolet once again returns to the theme of safety with its teen driver “Peace of Mind for Parents” ad. The ad begins with a close up of a family photo with the father talking about the responsibilities of a parent to protect his or her children, especially today in the technological age. The parents give their testimonials to the Teen Driver program that Chevrolet is promoting. This program provides real time feedback and parental controls, which promote good driving habits. Like the 1935 ad, this commercial relies on one’s need for safety, and in particular, for parents to trust that their children are safe and are learning to drive safer, even when they aren’t in the car.

Spurred by the increasing demand for alternative fuel vehicles, Chevrolet produced the new 2017 Bolt along with accompanying promotion ads. One will note that the ad is particularly informative relative to the previous ads. The difference lies in the exigency that the commercial is responding to. Environmentally conscious consumers have a desire for clean fuel burning vehicles. As with the dawn of the automobile the new design affords further explication of the vehicle specifics and the advantages of their design choices. In other words, an “introduction” is needed. Additionally, the commercial actually promotes the freedom of the electric Bolt in relation to its gasoline burning counterparts. Owners may charge or “re-fuel” their cars from the comfort of their homes instead of stopping at the gas station during rush hour on the way to work. The Bolt conveniently charges as one sleeps at night.

Chevrolet’s thoughtful and careful use of text, visual, and audio elements in their advertisements to appeal to potential customer's conscious and subconscious desires has positively influenced their target audiences and contributed to the brand's longevity from the early 20th century to the present day. Chevrolet began with informative advertisements, yet as time rolled on, the consumer needed less detail and more persuasion. Most people trusted that the car they bought would work and function correctly. Advertisers realized that people care about what other people think about them, and exploited that psychology. The consumer is more in touch with his or her emotions than they realize. The preceding analysis of Chevrolet ads should serve to inform the reader about the techniques used by Chevy to advertise their cars for well over a hundred years, and that its sustained success proves their ability to capture audiences' attention and the quality of their products.

Sources

  • Charette, Matt. (2015, February 28). Chevy Cheyenne vintage commercial. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LL4OeiMjvtk
  • Chevrolet. (2016, August 3). Teen Driver Technology: Peace of Mind for Parents | Chevrolet. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEY4OMnuxN4
  • Chevrolet. (2017, January 9). 2017 Bolt EV: Charging | Chevrolet. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8B0EDXvtEs
  • Harter, Jim. Early Automobiles: A History in Advertising Line Art, 1890-1930. San Antonio, TX: Wings, 2015. Print. (Barnum & Bailey picture)
  • MacDonald, John. "The Chevrolet." Old Car and Truck Advertisement Brochures, Chevrolet. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2017. http://oldcarandtruckpictures.com/oldcarandtruckads/Chevrolet/ (all pictures except Barnum & Bailey)
  • Petracca, Michael, and Madeleine Sorapure. "Advertising’s Fifteen Basic Appeals." Common Culture: Reading and Writing about American Popular Culture. Boston.: Pearson, 2012. 60-78. Print.
  • Quitnet, Jeff. (2013, October 26). Car Chassis: " No Ghosts" 1935 Chevrolet Division General Motors; GM's YK Automobile Frame. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daknKTDyf80

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