DETROIT — “I wouldn’t portray this as just yet another advertising campaign,” a Chevrolet marketing executive said while discussing Chevy’s ad blitz that literally dumps on Ford’s franchise product.
Talk about an understatement.
The 30- and 60-second commercials featuring see-through cracks in the aluminum beds of F-150s are getting heavy rotation during one of the busiest sports seasons of the year, not to mention long-form versions that will greet moviegoers at thousands of theaters. They are the marketing equivalent of a cluster bomb, the most scathing and provocative automotive ads in years.
Building an entire campaign on the floor of Ford’s gashed-up pickup bed makes the one-upmanship typically seen in truck marketing — boastful claims of top payload ratings or fuel economy — look like a schoolyard shoving match.
“This is different,” says a former high-level Detroit 3 marketing executive. “This is taking a serious shot at who you are. At your identity. At the very idea of Built Ford Tough.”
Amid the heavy media coverage that accompanied Chevy’s attack last week, some industry insiders wondered why Chevy struck so hard. Why now, 18 months after Ford’s aluminum-body F-150s went on sale? Some saw a hint of desperation, with Silverado sales lagging the F-150 this year and U.S. auto sales growth slowing. After all, the campaign accompanies Chevy’s biggest Silverado incentives since the current pickup came out three years ago.
Thing is, GM is feeling anything but desperate about its truck business. Talk to a GM executive about the company’s position in pickups, and you’ll sense deep satisfaction, bordering on giddiness. GM has made big inroads into the wide lead Ford once held with F-series average transaction prices. GM’s counterintuitive rollout of the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon in 2014 looks like a masterstroke that has Ford and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles scrambling to field their own midsize pickups.
And, right or wrong, GM execs believe they have been vindicated on the aluminum question.
Ford’s early 2014 unveiling of an aluminum-body F-150 that would shed some 700 pounds from its predecessor set the narrative that Ford had out-innovated GM. Media reports had GM frantically scrambling to get its own aluminum truck to market. Both companies were pushing toward a future of lighter pickups, The
Wall Street Journal reported in a February 2014 article, “but with Ford nearly five years ahead.”
The way GM execs see it, that story line began to unravel by the time the redesigned F-150 was launched in late 2014. Its fuel economy ratings were seen by most as disappointing. GM began talking more about its own “mixed materials” strategy.
“An all-aluminum answer,” GM product chief Mark Reuss declared to analysts during an October 2014 presentation, “is not the answer.”
Then about a year ago, in benchmark tests of various automakers’ pickup beds during development of GM’s next-gen trucks, engineers discovered the susceptibility of the F-150’s aluminum bed to puncture under sharp loads. GM bought a dozen F-150s straight from dealer lots and proceeded to run a battery of tests involving scientific-sounding things like a Dynatup 9250HV machine and joule measurements.
The final creative touch was to simplify the message by capturing the reactions of real-world truck owners — from Chevy, Ford, Ram and Toyota — clambering awestruck over the F-150 carnage.
“Ford needs to change their motto,” one quipped.
GM simply saw a golden opportunity to flag a shortcoming in its archrival’s flagship product. And it couldn’t resist going big.
Automotive marketing consultant Jim Sanfilippo sees risk.
“Is the message here that Ford has been kicking Chevy’s ass into a corner, and now they’re fighting for their lives? I don’t get it,” Sanfilippo says. He worries that Chevy’s attack could lower the discourse in future industry campaigns, even opening the door to ads with the mudslinging approach of a negative political campaign — say, an automaker pouncing on a rival’s safety recall.
“This is so severe,” he says. “Chevrolet ought to think very hard about the Pandora’s box they may be opening here.”