James Hartzell, a longtime advertising copywriter at Cambell Ewald in Detroit, died on Saturday. Hartzell will be most well known for coming up with the phrase "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" in 1974. The campaign Chevy rolled out later that year dug into the mid-'70s yearning for all things Americana and quickly gained a place in the canon of American creativity.
Being GM, the song was immediately badge-engineered for international consumption; The Australian version sported the lyrics "We love football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars," and a South African radio song touted "braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet."
Yet with 35 years of perspective, these ads now look less persuasive than they do foreboding. They mark the zenith of GM and old Detroit's prowess; as GM would sell two of every five new vehicles bought in the United States in 1975, the vehicles sprinkled amongst the oddly hyperactive actors in the ads comprise some of the worst ever to roll off GM's assembly lines. About two years after these aired, I had one of my earliest automotive experiences: watching my brother fix his Chevy Vega for a trip to the state fair by tying the rusting radiator to the rusting frame with bailing twine. Millions of Americans would sample choked-off engines, overweight bodies and poor build quality and start to wonder about how those perky little Honda CVCCs might perform.
Much of Chevy's sales attempts ever since have aimed for that same sweet spot, with several successful hits but many misses. Campbell-Ewald even revived the song for this 2006 refresh, where the laws of diminishing returns kicks in, heralded by the four horsemen of the dorkpocalypse above.
Any more modern version of the Chevy song would have to start with "football, cheesesteaks, cupcakes and Toyota." Chevy's claim to all things American was written down with the rest of GM's long-held assets in its bankruptcy, to a point where trying to cash it in now would generate more of the political protest that GM wants to avoid.
And despite attempts by other automakers to grab a slice of that apple pie for themselves, the industry has grown beyond nationality. George Washington looks dashing as hell behind the wheel of a Dodge Challenger — but he might be confused when you explain it's a Canadian-built coupe with German-designed components and a Mexican-built engine assembled by an Italian-managed company.
After decades of strip mining for nostalgia, Americans generally find the future far more fascinating and urgent than some over-imagined past. My family made it to the state fair in that Chevy Vega, but I'd rather not go back the same way.
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