How Chevrolet’s Ads Played It “Safe” & Failed a Safety Story

Chevrolet had me at “safety.” Sure, it was a print magazine ad, but the topic of safety has become increasingly important to me. The started with “safety” and then added “story,” and I wanted to know more.

It may seem odd to talk about a print advertisement on my blog about digital content marketing, but it’s not at all. Content strategy needs to connect the dots across all channels — print and digital alike — to ensure the best possible user experience.

It’s all content, even though it’s purchased and placed in print magazine. It’s inevitable that these content stories eventually fall under the purview of content strategy. There’s content in all of these ads, which often have drivers to the owned website and social media. Everything is connected.

At the end of the day, this is content for marketing purposes, even if the last step of the process was to paid placement. Applied content strategy requires relevant targeted or meaningful alignment to your audience’s interest or needs in online and offline channels.

And then there’s the misuse of the word “story.”

Chevrolet’s “Story” Approach to Advertising

As the father of a teen, I am considering the many different vehicles that my daughter may drive when she passes her driving test. Of course, she wants to be behind the wheel of something fast and trendy. I want her in something safe.


Left side of two-page ad by Chevrolet.

When the ad promised “The Safety Story of the All-New 2016 Chevrolet Malibu,” I dove in. Classic American car, decent styling, and safe? Let’s hear the “story.”

Of course, that was the problem. There was no “story.”

The glossy two-page color spread was everything lame about ads. Features, benefits, and (yawn) the standard photography that looks like a brochure.

Not only did Chevrolet fail to connect the dots for a potential customer, they told me that they don’t know much about storytelling either. It looked, smelled, and felt like an ad designed by a committee.

Advertising Is Not the Enemy

Before we get into this multi-level fail, let’s establish something critical: advertising is not the enemy. Advertising, when done well, can inform and excite a potential customer. It can increase mindshare, introduce new products, and revive familiar ones.

Advertising isn’t bad. Bad advertising is bad. And bad ad placement is why we need to create ad blockers and literally rewire our brains to ignore content. “Banner blindness” isn’t something you get from a parasite in a dirty river, but it does come from parasitic ads that pollute the Internet.

In the right context, ads can be part of the user experience. It can be the pre-seeker content that initiates a user journey, so it must be part of the complete content strategy, not a separate thing run by a different team.

When I’m reading Automobile magazine, I’m looking at the ads as part of the experience delivered to my door. Ads for new cars and auto accessories are part of the content that I expect.

Two-page spread of the Malibu safety ad.

Two-page spread of the Malibu safety ad.

I trust Automobile to deliver a strong content experience, which is why I pay for a subscription. If you’re paying for a print subscription to anything these days, you’re probably an enthusiast. You’re reading the ads that are part of a complete, organic content experience.

Bad ads are easy to spot. Anything that is completely unrelated to the content that you want to see is a poorly placed ad. True, you may want some new shoes, but when you’re on a health website looking up the symptoms of that lump that won’t go away…no. That’s a poorly placed ad. That ad placement gives advertising a bad name.

When programmatic ad technology allows an ad to follow you around like screen fungus, it’s a bad ad. If you have to count down the seconds before you can skip a video ad, the message is dead before arrival.

Early advertisements finely crafted communications were packed with information. Pioneers like David Ogilvy were masters at developing ad content (words + pictures) that felt as organic and pleasurable as the actual magazine content.

A lot has changed since those days. Most, if not all, of the content we consume can be tailored to our wants, needs, and desires. Advertisers are forced to interrupt us. Unfortunately, once they get our attention, they often fail to maximize the moment.

Which takes us back to this Chevrolet Malibu ad.


They interrupted me with a two-page spread that promised information that would entertain and inform. It promised the most overused word in marketing…”story.”

They had the right customer (me) at the right time (considering a car purchase) in the right channel (an automobile magazine). They baited the hook, had me on the line, and needed to do was reel me into a dealership or their website.

Part 1: When Visual Content Goes Wrong

Let’s read the ad as it was intended. First, the content.

From left to right, we have a blurb of copy. That’s probably the best thing on the entire page. They wrote how they had sat down with two of their engineers (including the safety specialist for teen drivers!) to talk about the new Malibu.


Now look at the photos. Is there anything in those photos that suggests that this car is going to be a good choice for teen drivers? Something affordable, reliable, and safe?

This looks like standard car-company photography. Car parked on road surface that’s conveniently wet enough for a reflection, check. Familiar interior components, check.

Um, what part of this is telling a visual story about safety? Isn’t that why you stopped me in my tracks?

Where’s the safe part of the story? It’s certainly not in the visual content.

Part 2: Copy Fail

Remember, this is a two-page spread. You have to figure that the copy will bring us to the safety story. Isn’t that what the headline promised?

They show a tiny corporate headshot of someone ostensibly tied into safety. Then they ask a softball question that, hopefully, will turn into a compelling narrative. Maybe Raymond Kiefer or Maryann Beebe will talk about a life-changing experience that led to their role as safety evangelists. Or they will talk about the moment they heard about how the Malibu actually saved someone’s life.

I’m looking for someone in this ad to grab the safety flag and run it up the hill. (Carefully, of course. We don’t want any injuries.)

Instead we’re greeted with dense copy. So dense that you wonder if these people talk in long, rambling sentences or if the designers just didn’t know how to make a paragraph break.

Seriously, try to read this. The tiny type is in grey ink, which makes me wonder if they intended for anyone to read the text at all.

It gets worse. Greeted with the opportunity to talk about the advanced safety features engineered into the car, Raymond Kiefer launches into a painful recitation of marketing terms. One or two would have been fine, but wrap your head around these doozies.

“…we’ve engineered a number of available safety features, including Low Speed Front Automatic Braking, Lane Keep Assist with Lane Departure Warning and Rear Cross Traffic Alert, aimed at increasing driver awareness.”


What does that mean? Why not take one of those and tell me something that will help me understand what “Lane Keep Assist with Lane Departure Warning and Rear Cross Traffic Alert” actually means.

It gets better. Or worse, depending on who you’re rooting for at this point.

“Before you make a lane change, the available Side Blind Zone Alert with Lane Change Alert feature lights up a side mirror icon if a vehicle is rapidly approaching or in your blind spot.”

Hold on, let me tweet that out.

His answer includes four, as many as nineteen, different safety options. I only know these are important because They Are in Capital Letters Like This. This means they were named by someone who wanted them to seem important.

Skip ahead to the next engineer. You have to feel badly for Mary Beebe, who simultaneously has the most important and also most awkward business title at GM. She’s “GM Engineering Specialist, Teen Driver.”

Based on the placement of that comma, I had to look extra closely to see if she was the head of a division or an unusually accomplished teen who drives cars on behalf of GM. Turns out, she’s not a teenager.

There was one glimmering moment of hope in the last sentences where Maryann Beebe mentioned that she’s a mom. If she said that her kid drives the Malibu, it might have salvaged the ad.

Here’s what was in the ad:

As a mom myself, it’s rewarding to know that we’re helping make a tangible difference. We want to set the industry standard for safety.

Okay, not bad. It would have been way more powerful if she said something like:

Hi, I’m GM’s Engineering Specialist, but I’m also a mom.

I put my own son behind the wheel of a 2016 Chevrolet Malibu.

Any other questions about safety?

That’s an ad that tells a human story, not one about technology list named by a marketing team.

This is Not a Story
They used the word “story,” but this ad isn’t a story. It doesn’t even come close. It doesn’t connect me with anything that would feel remotely story like. It’s possible that whoever wrote this ad assumed that telling a story simply required you to use the word “story.”

Actually the YouTube video below is a story about safety. Watch this:


What They Should Have Done

Chevrolet wanted to do something with storytelling. This was one of many ads Automobile that have used the same aesthetic approach. This one included the word “safety,” so it was timely and relevant for me.

They should have used this space to do something that would speak to me. This ad didn’t speak to anyone except a marketing team that included Important Sounding Brand Features that Mean Nothing to the Outside World.

Here are a few ways they could have ended that ad.

Chevrolet. Safe for Everything in Your Life.


Chevrolet. It’s Everyone’s First Car for a Reason.


Chevrolet. Our Kids Drive Them Too.


When They’re in a Chevrolet, They’re Our Family Too.

Advertising content should follow the basic rules of content storytelling and reflect the complete marketing ecosystem for your brand. The ad should propel a call to action.

Instead of leaving me with one compelling thought and a call to action, I’m left with nothing. Show me why your new Malibu is safer. Tell me something that makes me believe that I should entrust you with my daughter’s safety.

Show a picture of a teenager. Show a worried father, as she drives off.

Show a single safety feature that makes me understand why the Malibu is best, safest car as she pulls away from the curb. Move me with a story.


Required Reading

This post was inspired by the always-brilliant Andrew Davis. Check out his Unsolicited Advice columns for CCO magazine:

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