In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders to shed some light on how the pop culture sausage gets made.
If you’ve spent any amount of time lately tethered to a live terrestrial TV—watching the NBA playoffs, catching up on your TGIT shows, whatever—you’ve probably seen Chevy’s latest campaign. The bigger-than-big campaign finds “regular people” entering massive wood-paneled rooms full of Chevys, only to have surprise after J.D. Power-related surprise thrown at them. Whether they’re stumbling over all the awards Chevy has won over the past few years, or standing, mouth agape, as a surprise Chevy drives out of a shipping container, the regular Joes in the campaign seem legitimately taken aback by just how great Chevys are, an assertion made repeatedly by Chevy’s jovial regular-guy spokesperson, Potsch Boyd.
But who are the people in those campaigns, and just how surprising were all of Chevys’ big reveals? The A.V. Club was contacted by a reader who appears in one of the ads, and while he signed a hefty NDA legally prohibiting him from talking about the shoot, he was willing to dish the dirt as long as he was able to remain anonymous. After a thorough background check, we agreed.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up in a Chevy commercial?
Anonymous: Well, I was walking down the street, and these two girls approached me. One of them had an iPad and said, “Hi, would you like to participate in paid market research?” That’s something that sounds kind of sketchy, but I’ve done a lot of market research, so I’ve actually experienced this before.
AVC: On what end? Researcher or interview subject?
Anonymous: The subject. I’ve done studies about, “Oh, taste this gum. How long does it stay chewable in your mouth? How is this video game?” When I was a kid I did it a lot. So I had been approached on the street before to do one of these. It usually results in this thing where you end up in a boardroom and they just ask you questions or show you slides or photos and ask your opinion on things. It’s usually pretty legit. It also usually pays pretty well, so I was like, “Okay, sure.”
They started showing me their iPad, and they asked me a lot of questions about stuff like, “What kind of car do you own? How old is your car? When are you planning on buying a new car, if you’re planning on it?” Never anything specifically about Chevy. And then they said, “Okay, that was all great. You’ll probably get an email soon about participating in our market research. It pays $200.”
AVC: That’s an okay amount of money.
Anonymous: Yeah, it’s okay. They said, “It’s going to be about two hours of your time,” and I was like, “Okay, sure.” It’s usually an easy thing to do, and I work freelance, so if it works into my schedule, it’s totally reasonable to do that.
When I got the email and went, it was at the L.A. Convention Center, which was the first—I don’t want to say red flag, but—
Anonymous: Yeah, the first indication that something was up, because I don’t know why they would have a boardroom at the L.A. Convention Center.
That’s when things kind of got weird. They directed me to a hall at the convention center that was completely empty. I think it was going on at the same time as the AVN Awards, which are the porn awards. At first I thought I was going there. I was like, “Cars and porn—this makes perfect sense.”
Instead I went to a hall that was completely empty. I’m not exaggerating. It was, like, two people sitting at a folding table completely alone in the middle of an empty convention center with nothing around. They were waving to me like, “Over here. You’re here for the market research session.” It felt like a mile walk. It was so awkward, like when you hold the door for someone and you’re waiting for them, but they’re really far away.
I got there, though, and I filled out a questionnaire and signed a bunch of stuff. They wired me up, and then they told me to wait with three other people, who I assumed were there for the market research, too. No one knew what was going on. They offered us water and snacks, and we just kind of sat there in the middle of an empty convention center for 20 to 30 minutes while everyone who worked there was whispering weird stuff. They all had these matching polos with this market research company name on it.
It kind of felt like we were about to be euthanized, to be honest. I’m serious. I almost walked away just because—I don’t want to say they treated us badly, because they didn’t, but they just didn’t really talk to us. It was strange.
AVC: Did you know it was for Chevy specifically?
Anonymous: No, I didn’t know it was for Chevy. I knew it had something to do with cars, but I didn’t think we’d be seeing cars or looking at cars. I assumed we’d just be looking at pictures of cars, or giving our thoughts on what’s wrong with cars.
Anyway, we sat there for a while, and this guy comes out. He’s got one of those Britney Spears headsets on, and he’s like, “Wait one minute.” We kind of clamored around, and they told us to leave our phones in a basket.
They had told us to dress business casual, like we were going to an interview. I was definitely not dressed too well. I guess I missed that part of the instructions.
They let us into this room, and it was completely dark. It was a room between rooms because there were doors on either side. There were these giant double doors that had a tarp or a diffuser over the window, so it kind of looked like—even though it was completely dark—it looked like the scenes in Dexter where everything’s tarped over. I was thinking, “Oh, I might get murdered.” The guy was really, really paranoid about letting us in at the correct time. He was like, “Okay, whenever you’re ready, open the door. Wait, wait, wait—they’re not ready in there. Hold on, hold on, hold on.” We were all really confused.
They had miked us up with individual microphones, which was kind of strange, because when I’ve done market research in the past, there’s a microphone on the table or the ceiling because they don’t want you to feel like you’re being recorded. But it was very obvious that we were being recorded. Then they said, “Open the doors.” I was pretty hesitant about opening them, but this guy I was with was just like, “All right.” And he opened the doors.
In the commercial, when you see those people walk in, they’re just kind of stunned by what is going on. It was extremely stunning that they didn’t use my walk-in because I was literally astonished and amazed at how we’d gone from this weird, dark corridor to this really immaculately lit room with all these wooden walls, and there’s just this one guy standing there in a suit, just smiling at us in complete silence. Behind him, something popped through one of the walls. It was a giant crane with a camera on it that was moving very slowly but still making this grinding, chugging noise.
[The spokesperson] just said, “Hey, guys!” as we walked in, and it was another long walk to get over to where he was standing in complete silence. Everyone was just really confused. I felt nervous. It was weird.
I’d seen commercials before, so I knew exactly what this was, but I didn’t know what the gag was in this particular commercial, because it didn’t look like it was a gag. It was the commercial with the four cars where he talks about the J.D. Power awards.
AVC: And he keeps opening the doors?
Anonymous: Yeah, the walls open and stuff. But it was weird because, once we got in there, he didn’t tell us where to stand or anything. He didn’t point at anything. We just magically got in that line of four people horizontally right in front of him. It was like they had this weird power.
When I was talking to people in the lobby, no one seemed that enthusiastic about anything. The second we got in there, it was like magically everyone was the world’s biggest Chevrolet fan. I can’t stress enough that I’m a real person and not an actor. None of these people were actors, because I asked them what they all did for a living. They suddenly became these perfect spokespeople when this guy started asking questions, like, “What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you think about Chevy?” Literally, the guy next to me was like, “Freedom.” [Laughs.] He was suddenly so patriotic. He was like, “American-made cars. Quality.” All of these people were spewing out these buzzwords.
Then they got to me and were like, “What do you think about Chevy?” and I was like, “Popular.” I’m not saying I don’t like Chevy or I won’t drive a Chevy or whatever, but it’s a car. It’s not the American flag or the Statue Of Liberty. They wanted us to be all about how the cars were American-made and all that stuff. They asked us what we drove, and no one there drove a Chevy.
[The spokesman] was asking us all these buzzword questions, and then after a while he was like, “Do you know what a J.D. Power And Associates Award is?” And we all go, “No.” Because we all know they don’t really matter because nobody really knows what they are.
Anyway, he goes, “Did you know that J.D. Power And Associates gave us the most awards this year for these four cars?” When people see these commercials or talk about these commercials now, they’re like, “I’m not impressed by that at all.” But I was actually kind of impressed because I didn’t think Chevy—I mean, awards don’t really mean anything if I don’t understand them. I didn’t think they were actually decorated at all, and I guess it is something to say you have the most meaningless awards over all the other car brands in terms of meaningless awards.
We were like, “Well, we’re surprised.” And they were like, “What does that mean to you?” The other people said stuff like, “That’s impressive. That makes me want to drive a Chevy. That makes me believe in American manufacturing.” “That’s the most patriotic thing I’ve ever heard.”
Then the best part happened, which is that the spokesman went, “What if I told you last year we won more awards than the other car brands?” When that wall opened, it was the loudest, most awkward and slow-moving thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. It just sounded like loud mechanical noise. You could hear the camera panning slowly in front of us or behind us and this guy just stood there through the awkward silence and smiled at us, completely unfazed.
When people talk about the commercial, they’re like, “That guy’s so weird and awkward, and he’s so fake,” and all this stuff. But I think he has the world’s most difficult job to perform well, and he does it amazingly. He just stood there, and these doors just kept opening and he didn’t flinch. He was there all day, and he’s smiling and showing all this enthusiasm. It was crazy. And the doors just kept opening, and everyone in my group was just like, “Wow, that’s cool.” They didn’t show any expression, but I was literally freaking out because I couldn’t believe that they were spending all this money.
I’m a filmmaker by trade—I know what’s going on. I didn’t tell them I was a filmmaker when they asked me what I did, because they wouldn’t allow me to do it, but I knew what camera they were shooting on, I knew what kind of equipment they were using. I knew exactly how much money this stuff was costing. Not exactly, but a better understanding than most people have. I was blown away that they were putting so much time and thought and effort in this commercial, which was literally just doors opening with more cars behind them. It went on and on and on. We were there for an hour.
Then he took us inside the cars, and they had a camera in every single car as he asked us stuff like, “What do you think about the interior of the car? How does it feel? How does the steering wheel feel?” He said, “Cover up the insignia on the front of the car.” Like, on the steering wheel. There’s a big Chevy symbol right on the steering wheel. He goes, “Cover that up for a second” to the person in the driver’s seat. Then he goes, “Now. What kind of car are you inside?” And this girl next to me goes, “You know what? I kind of feel like I’m in a Mercedes.” [Laughs.] Like, what are these people doing?
There are parody videos that have been getting popular making fun of these people who are supposedly real people, but I also feel like everyone was… not bending to [Chevy’s] will because they didn’t really influence us to say anything. We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one guy. He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.
After a while, we left, and we signed some more forms, and they handed us an envelope and said, “Here’s $150 in Visa gift cards. We’re going to mail you a check for the remaining $50.”
AVC: That’s weird.
Anonymous: Yeah, it’s super weird. I don’t know what that was about. The Visa gift cards worked, though. I used them that day. It was all fine and dandy, and I didn’t get taxed on the $150 in gift cards, which was cool.
They also said, “If we use your face or if we use any of your soundbites, you’ll get another check for more money.”
AVC: Yeah, you have to pay speaking extras more than regular extras.
Anonymous: I don’t know if they do some workaround where they don’t have to pay you SAG rate, whatever that is.
I was just hoping and praying they would use my face or my voice, but they never did. It’s probably because I was just looking around at everything, constantly laughing. My reaction to everything was laughter. Like, “Here’s the fifth set of doors opening and 20 more cars.” You couldn’t not laugh at this guy, who was trying so hard. That’s pretty much it, outside of the specifics.
AVC: How real are the reactions? You’re saying that people were genuinely very excited once they realized they were on TV. Do you think people were amping it up for the cameras?
Anonymous: I’m a firm believer that it was all real people, not actors. In my group, I can say for sure we were all real people. I want to think they didn’t have other groups where people were planted. I really want to believe that it’s just because people suddenly felt the need to be excited or respectful or trying to give really good answers about Chevy on camera.
The way they set up these questions, it was hard to get someone to say, “Yeah, I really don’t drive a Chevy. I drive a Toyota, and I’ve never had a problem.” They were asking us for all these one-word responses. No one’s going to say, “What’s the first word you think of when you hear the word ‘Chevrolet’?” and have someone reply, “Bullshit.” It’s not going to happen. We’re paid to be there, and there are all these cameras and whatever.
To credit Chevy, I think the commercial is as legit as they could possibly get it, given the circumstances and the shock factor of doors opening and onslaughts of cars being thrown at you. But also, it’s an easy setup for people to scream “Actor!” when there are just people on screen saying one-word responses.
AVC: Did they tell you it was a TV commercial before you walked in?
Anonymous: No. They didn’t tell us we were going to be in a commercial. They just handed us an NDA—or they handed us a release, which I’ve seen in other market research things, because they usually do tape market-research things in boardrooms and record it. It was just a release of usage of your appearance and whatever in exchange for $200.
There was no sign that it was ever going to be a commercial, except for the odd miking [of] us all individually, which was kind of extreme. That’s the only way I can think to describe that.
AVC: How do you feel about the whole thing after the fact?
Anonymous: It was a funny experience that was well worth the $200—well, the $150 Visa card and the $50. I’ll see the commercial, and it’s so funny to look at this guy and not hear the doors opening and this grinding, super-loud sound and just the awkwardness of it. To see it all beautifully edited and whatever, and to see my back in it for a split second… It’s pretty cool. I get to say I’ve been in a Chevy commercial.
AVC: Did it change your mind about Chevy? Do you know what J.D. Power And Associates is now?
Anonymous: I’m still not really sure what a J.D. Power And Associates Award is, and they explained it to us. I didn’t retain it at all. But I am genuinely surprised to hear that Chevy has won more unimportant awards than any other car manufacturer.
Everyone’s heard of the J.D. Power award. They don’t know what it is, but in every commercial, everyone’s touting how many J.D. Power awards they have. It’s really important to the commercial industry.
I’m guess I’m surprised and proud of American cars for managing to accumulate all these awards. I guess it’s kind of cool. Will I be buying a Chevy? Enhhhhh…
AVC: Maybe if they give you a deal?
Anonymous: If they give me a deal, I would consider it. I kind of do need a new car. I drive a Camry, and it’s fine. It’ll last forever.
I will say, the awards they were showing us were like, “Best Performance Within Six Months Of Ownership,” or whatever. There are no awards for “10 Years And Not Breaking Down A Single Time.” It’s all these awards that are right at the front end of when you’re purchasing a car or before it even gets off the lot to you, so, really, “The Best Brand-New Car.”
Chevy also makes a lot of cars. I learned this. They have a lot of different models. Almost every single car they showed us was different. It’s kind of funny to see how reluctant they are in showing you the lime-green version of the trucks, you know? They offer all these cars with all these different colors, but it’s weird that they know these colors don’t work in commercials. They don’t want to publicly advertise that they have these cars in these super ugly, weird colors, but yet they’ll still sell them and people still buy them. They’re only really showing silver, dark blue, and black models. I’m wondering why they even bother selling these weird colors.
AVC: How long were you in the convention center? Did it really only take two hours?
Anonymous: The entire process of being in the commercial when they were filming probably took 45 minutes. But waiting around for them, signing the paperwork, getting miked up, and waiting for them to, I assume, reset because they had to have been doing them all day was, like, an hour of waiting beforehand. I can’t imagine what the closing of the doors sounds like or if they have to do it manually. It would be funny if they only opened one way automatically, and all these people have to rush in.
One detail I forgot was that, when we were done shooting, this producer guy came out and ushered us out. As you walk off set, you realize it’s just four walls erected in the middle of a giant room. Outside the set was completely dark, and you could see all these cameramen filming through holes in the wall. There was this big one-way mirror with all these execs sitting there watching us. You could see all the crane operators. When you’re in the commercial, you only saw this one guy and the crane. But there were, like, 50 people there working on this thing secretly. Whether they were up on a catwalk above the set or hiding behind a mirror—it was very cool. It was bizarre and exciting.
AVC: You only saw them afterwards?
Anonymous: Yeah. We didn’t see them at all. And the second we left, we could see the outside of the set, and there were all these people just standing around, moving silently through the shadows. It was so quiet. You could hear a pin drop.