Creator Expects Long Life for ‘Heartbeat’ Ads


Killing some time before an airplane flight last fall, Sean Kevin Fitzpatrick and his wife stopped briefly at the Yale Club in New York. They bypassed the club’s squash courts and its Turkish bath, opting to sit in the lounge and watch television with a few other couples.

Then, Fitzpatrick heard his heartbeat.

Well, not exactly his own heartbeat, but the “Heartbeat of America” commercial that he created for the Chevrolet division of General Motors. The near-breathless ad begins with a pulsating heartbeat sound that is wrapped around a knee-slapping tune. To the surprise of some of the guests, a well-dressed woman in her mid-20s jumped up from her seat in the usually sedate lounge and started singing out loud with the commercial.

“I looked at my wife and whispered, ‘My God, we’re going to be millionaires,’ ” said Fitzpatrick, executive vice president and creative director at the Warren, Mich.-based ad firm, Campbell-Ewald Co. Nearly a year later, the 45-year-old Fitzpatrick--who drives race cars and develops motion pictures in his spare time--says he isn’t a millionaire yet. But as he prepares to address ad industry executives today at the American Advertising Federation’s annual conference in Orlando, his compatriots are certainly according him celebrity status.


And why not? After all, the estimated $250-million ad campaign is by far Chevrolet’s most successful since Dinah Shore chirped her patriotic “See the USA in a Chevrolet.” In fact, the Heartbeat campaign marks the first time in 20 years that a single-themed Chevrolet campaign has survived for more then six months.

So far, the ads have hardly translated into booming sales at Chevrolet--despite the recent introductions of two new models, the Beretta and Corsica. In fact, through the first quarter of 1987, Chevrolet sales were down 12.1% from the same period last year.

“But this campaign can’t be measured in short-term results,” said Chris Cedergren, senior auto analyst at J. D. Power & Associates, a Westlake Village-based automotive consulting firm. It is an image-building campaign, he said, and “image is the key issue for the car market of the 1990s--and that’s where everyone’s looking. By then, the quality issue will be pretty much resolved, and everyone will have aerodynamic design. So, when you come right down to it, all that’s left is image.”

Chevrolet executives are so giddy over the image of the Heartbeat campaign that they have mapped tentative ad strategy to use versions of it well into the 1990s. “Because it’s not connected to any single spokesman, it can grow and mirror changes in consumer habits,” said Danielle Colliver, advertising manager at Chevrolet. “It’s conceivable we could use versions of it for the next 10 years.”

Well, that may be stretching it a bit, said Dave Vaderha, president of Video Storyboard Tests Inc., a New York firm that monitors advertising popularity. “It’s a very successful campaign,” he said, “but car makers love to come out with new campaigns for each new model year.” Still, in Vaderha’s survey, the Chevrolet campaign ranked as the 11th-most popular ad campaign in the fourth quarter of last year--an unusually high ranking for a car maker. And the 8-month-old campaign still ranks in the top 15.

What’s more, Chevrolet’s current series of 30 car and truck ads have been nominated for 10 Clio awards--the most prestigious ad prizes in the industry. And it is far-and-away the most effective ongoing ad campaign of any domestic auto maker, according to a survey by McCollum-Spielman Research Inc., a Great Neck, N.Y. research firm. “In the past few years,” said Stephen Frankel, vice president at the research firm, “no one has come close to a domestic car campaign with the potential of this one,”


The campaign, however, was really born out of desperation. By the mid-1980s, Chevrolet’s market share had dwindled to a third of what it had during its heyday in the mid-1960s. “We had to do something fast,” said Fitzpatrick. “Lee Iacocca and Chrysler had already staked out America as theirs,” he said, “and our market share curve was steeper than the ski slopes at Mammoth.”

It was about this time that Fitzpatrick attended an auto race at Daytona. He noticed that one of the Chevy drivers had written the line “Heartbeat of America” on the outside of his car. Then, a writer at Fitzpatrick’s agency suggested a commercial about a young boy walking down a dusty road in a turn-of-the-century town. When a red Corvette convertible roars by, the boy pictures himself in the driver’s seat. “At that moment, we realized that we weren’t just selling cars, we were selling aspirations.” Enter, the Heartbeat campaign.

Executives listened to 104 different songs over a number of weeks before selecting the current Heartbeat theme. For 1988, there may be new variations of the same Heartbeat song, but composers don’t plan to mess with the rhythmic heartbeat sound. After all, it is doing exactly what they’d hoped for--attracting the attention of youngsters.

At least one New Jersey junior high school teacher’s letter to Chevrolet attests to that. At a school assembly on health, a nurse started to explain to the students how to listen to their own heartbeats. At that, one student stood up and started to sing Chevrolet’s Heartbeat song. Pretty soon, the teacher wrote, “the entire assembly was singing it.”

Industry Officials Fight Florida Tax on Ads

At a time when school children and their parents are heading for Florida for summer vacations, many of the nation’s biggest advertisers seem to be leaving.

So far, Procter & Gamble, General Foods, RJR Nabisco, Kellogg, Kraft, Clorox, American Isuzu and Frigidaire have announced plans to withdraw their local advertising from Florida to protest a new state sales tax on advertising.


And publications such as National Geographic have even begun to circulate lower advertising rates--$117,450 per page instead of $123,000--for firms that want to advertise in all editions of National Geographic except those sent to Florida.

At issue is a 5% state sales tax on services--which includes not only advertising, but also services ranging from lawyers fees to pest control. It was approved by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Bob Martinez in April. It takes effect July 1.

On Monday, some 1,500 advertising industry officials rallied in Orlando to denounce that new tax. Never without hype, the ad executives staged a rally complete with buttons, placards and even a specially commissioned protest song. Full-page ads deriding the tax were placed in the Wall Street Journal and more than a dozen Florida newspapers.

But it wasn’t just the Florida tax they have on their minds, it’s the possibility that this tax could spread. No other state has a tax on advertising now, but Texas, Illinois and Louisiana have reportedly haveconsidered enacting one.

“I’m not optimistic” about stopping the Florida tax, said Howard Bell, president of the American Advertising Federation, which orchestrated the rally. “But I’m hopeful the rally will unite the forces fighting it and prepare them for stopping it in their own states.”