This week, on the 75th anniversary of the release of the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, it is hard to imagine an even more sentimental video bringing a unifying holiday spirit to our divided nation. But General Motors has pulled this off with a new message to Americans, in the form of a salute to a classic car that has tremendous symbolic value for a small family as well as for a diverse embracing community. With dreamy, tinted color, compelling acting, and a scene of loss, love, and inspiration, the ad reminds us of our better angels, in the tradition of Frank Capra’s film portrait of holiday resilience from grief through love and community unity. Chevrolet, whose sponsorship brought us the iconic American imagery of Bonanza’s Ponderosa Ranch, now brings us a new back-to-the-future theme.
This has already been a terrific year for General Motors, commercially, financially, and technologically. The company could celebrate the success of the EV Hummer, the first truck and SUV with top-rated on-road and off-road performance through next-generation electric propulsion. GM also advanced other EVs such as the Bolt and its reliance upon its own Ultium battery system, plus its repositioned marque Cadillac brand, on top of a commitment to migrate completely away from combustion engines by 2035. Such developments led to a strong consensus “buy” recommendation among analysts, and GM’s stock is up 34% in 2021.
This follows an equally strong 2020 during which CEO Mary Barra modeled corporate citizenship, helping the nation combat the COVID pandemic by revamping factories to make emergency ventilators and PPE supplies. The company also set a model for increasing voter access, with paid time off for voting and for volunteer poll workers. Starting Jan. 1, in all her nonexistent free time, Barra will be chairing the Business Roundtable. It is no wonder Barra has been anointed the most consequential car chief since GM creator Alfred Sloan a century ago.
A sentimental victory
Even after such a streak of strong performance, GM’s new ad soars, with its emotional and patriotic impact.
The four-minute ad portrays an adoring daughter giving her mourning widower dad a surprise holiday gift by refurbishing the 1966 Chevy Impala that he had given his now-deceased wife years earlier. At the ad’s opening, we see the grieving older man replacing the crumbling holiday wreath outside the collapsing barn that houses the mothballed car. As he sits in the dusty driver’s seat, the man breaks down in tears, reminiscing over the happiness his lost wife, in their youth, felt about the original gift of the iconic convertible. His daughter, observing the scene, has flashbacks of her mom teaching her to drive in that same Impala. She rallies the town’s mechanics and other friends across social divides, to revive the car as the gift of lifetime. When, on Christmas morning, the dad discovers the gift, his daughter, struggling to smile through her tears, explains, “It’s what Mom would’ve wanted.” As she and the family dog hop in the car for a spin with her dad—with a photo of his late wife attached to the rear-view mirror—he replies gratefully, “It’s the best Christmas gift I could ever have.”
The car was revived, the ad shows, by the selfless spirit of the town, with neighbors expressing the love they share for the man with his daughter. It’s an echo of the way the way the generous spirit of Bedford Falls, the fictional town of Capra’s film, rallied to save distressed local businessman George Bailey. This movie, ranked one of the American Film Institute’s all-time 100 best films, was Capra’s favorite, along with its lead, Jimmy Stewart. But it has also come to be beloved by the American public as it is played in virtually continuous loops on TVs seasonally in U.S. homes.
Similarly, this Chevy ad has gone viral beyond all expectations, with a YouTube version already logging more than 4.5 million views. One Detroit publication said, “Try watching this commercial without welling up, shedding a tear or downright bawling your eyes out.”
Even I have received well over a hundred comments on this ad—and the range of shared enthusiasm across the political spectrum is astounding. GOP strategist Ralph Reed wrote me, “Loved this ad!” Grover Norquist, who leads American for Tax Freedom, said, “I certainly did love it and have shared it with family.” A former economic development commissioner of NYC, Charles Millard, said, “Lump in throat. Tears in eyes.” A friend who is a judge and a clear-eyed realist comments, “I saw the ad but my first thought was, no way she got that car out of the garage without his knowing.”
Bob Woodward, Washington Post reporter and coauthor of Peril, confided: “Well, Jeff, that was a great emotional bath for me when I read it at 4 a.m. Maybe it is because my father bought a pre-Impala Chevy BelAir convertible. It was 1954. I was 11. The new car was yellow and white, later painted light blue. If I had the old car in a barn, I would try to get it restored. It is what my father would understand. But, of course, he traded it in—the American Way. The great engine of American Capitalism—dispose of the old, get the latest version and move on. Thanks for the Christmas card.”
Former TECO Energy CEO Sherrill Hudson said, “What a powerful ad. Brought tears to my eyes.” Hollywood mega-producer David Salzman declared, “This extended ‘commercial’ has a lot of heart.” Columbia accounting professor Norman Bartczak said, “My Dad was always an Impala man. The ad brings back images of happy times which we can use right now!” Yale management professor Amy Wrzesniewski said, “That really got me. It is a great ad.” Mike Leven, who successfully led Las Vegas Sands, Holiday Inn, and Days Inn, explained, “Best ad I have ever seen in my entire career. If it doesn’t sell cars, it’s still the best—wow.” PepsiCo EVP of communications Jon Banner saluted it, saying, “Amazing creative, beautifully done.” Financier Ryan Hicke of SEI said, “Best 4 minutes of my day watching this, although I have to admit it got a little ‘dusty’ in the Hicke household for most of the viewing!” Venture capitalist Jamie Lee confessed, “So I am super sentimental about cars, and this commercial really hit me in the chest, hard, in a great way.” Former Webster Financial CEO Jim Smith, who in every great way resembles George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, said “I am glad I was alone when I watched it.”
CNN anchor Michael Smerconish said, “My parents’ first new car was a 1966 green Chevy Impala. My dad had $20 in his pocket when he bought it at Reedmans auto world…love this…I might ditch my Tesla!”
An equalizing machine
Social critic Lewis Mumford labeled the automobile our “personal chariot” in his 1967 book The Myth of the Machine, characterizing cars as an equalizing machine. Perhaps the celebration of an American automobile can remind us of our common values—not just in freedom and mobility, but also in compassion and collective action. GM’s 1950 anthem, See the USA in Your Chevrolet, became Dinah Shore’s signature song, in part thanks to its fourth verse, which proclaims, “America’s the greatest land of all.” Let’s see the USA as does Chevrolet this holiday season—and maybe through the potholes of next fall’s election season.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is a senior associate dean and professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management, where he is president of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute. Follow him on Twitter.
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