There’s a case to be made that 1991 was the start of one of the great eras in American sports, and possibly the greatest for the Midwest. An important moment in time when champions were crowned, regional rivalries, no matter how low in the standings your team may have been in some inconsequential game, still meant everything. And it all felt totally synced up with a Bob Seger song in a commercial that had come out a few years earlier.
It started 25 years ago this autumn, when you tuned in to watch any football game, from the middle of the country to the East and the West, you couldn’t escape Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock” commercial, featuring the song of the same name released on the album also of the same name originally released in 1986. Although the song got to number one on US Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks after it hit stores, to an entire generation of sports fans who saw the commercial in their formative years while watching their home team on network TV long after the 1970s success of albums like Night Moves and Stranger in Town, it became Seger’s defining song and also the one that evokes the strongest memories of a time in sports and America that feels so long ago.
The Chicago Bulls won their first of six championships led by Michael Jordan, and, maybe most importantly to him, they beat their rivals from Detroit to get to the finals. That same spring, the Twin Cities saw a Cinderella shot at the Stanley Cup just slip through the North Stars’ hands. A rough loss for the hockey-obsessed area, but locals were rewarded in October with the Minnesota Twins winning game seven of what many consider to be the greatest World Series to ever be played a year after the Cincinnati Reds won it. Desmond Howard would strike the Heisman pose on the way to the Wolverines winning the Big Ten, while the school’s basketball team had some of the most promising recruits in the country strut onto the court and usher in the Fab Five era. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions battled for the top spot in the NFL’s Black & Blue Division, only to see Chicago exit in the first round of the playoffs. The highlight of the year for the division could have really been Barry Sanders showing he could throw down a dunk on a basketball – but then you had some rookie quarterback from Mississippi, chained to a coach in Atlanta who said “it would take a plane crash” for him to put the second round pick into a game. At the end of that season, Brett Favre would be shipped off to Green Bay, and everything would change. He was playing down south in 1991, but Favre was just waiting for a team like the Packers to let him shine. And if you watched any of those moments or games from that season for any sport, there’s a pretty good chance you hummed along to “Like a Rock” at some point.
It makes perfect sense if you think about it: Chevrolet claimed to have the longest lasting and most dependable pickup trucks on the market and needed something that really drove that home. Toyota, Subaru and other foreign carmakers were selling more cars during the recession America found itself in at the start of the decade, but light truck sales (vans, SUVs and pickups) by American auto companies were still strong. Chevy, which had always found new ways of tying patriotic duty with buying cars, from the Eisenhower-era “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet” to 1970s and 1980s campaigns like “Baseball, Hotdogs, Apple Pie & Chevrolet” and “The Heartbeat of America,” really needed something that hit home what made their pickups better than all others.
On paper, there is something perfect about a Detroit automaker using a song by a hometown guy like Seger for one of their commercials, but he’d never been into the idea of being the soundtrack to upping sales. Even though, by his own admission, he’d been offered “ten times as much money” from beer companies like Coors, there was something about working with the auto manufacturer felt right. “I’m a Michigan guy,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 1994. “My father worked at Ford for 19 years, I worked at GM in Ypsilanti. I’d been turning down commercials for years and years, just hated the idea of it.”
The story goes that local advertising firm Campbell-Ewald, “was told to develop a campaign to communicate the truck’s promise of durability in a meaningful, emotional way.” One of the firm’s creative director’s heard the song while listening to Seger, as many in the Great Lake State are wont to do, and felt the song just embodied everything Chevy wanted to say was great about their trucks: that they’d still be there standing straight and bold after a day of hard work, that they’d be “carryin’ the weight,” that they were solid and tough to break – like a rock. Seger was still uncomfortable with a big corporation using one of his songs in any commercial, but as he told it, one night while hanging out in a bar in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, a guy came up to him “out of nowhere” to ask, “How come you never do any commercials for the auto companies and help us out a little bit?’ Then he walked away.” American music is filled with its great legends and stories, Seger’s is possibly the most Midwestern of them all.
The initial commercial set the template for the campaign that would last until 2004: plenty of mud-covered pickups, cattle, cowboys, people in hard hats and American flags all set to Seger. It became one of the most iconic car commercials of its time, but the auto company knew there was one audience they had to target more than any other: sports fans. If you were watching in Texas watching the Longhorns, the Bills in Buffalo, a Boston Red Sox game in the summer or any college or professional sports team across the country from 1991 until the campaign was wound down, you no doubt heard Seger’s song at some point, maybe even several times. It outlasted dozens of other car and beer commercials, becoming almost like a tradition to sports fans.
Some didn’t like it so much, like George Vecsey, who wrote for the New York Times in 1992 about how he “came to hate Bob Seger,” while watching a Duke-Kentucky game basketball game. “Every 1.2 seconds, somebody would foul somebody else, the players would trot to the bench, and they – the great “they” who run sports – would switch to a commercial for pickup trucks, featuring Seger singing “Like a Rock.” But today, when you ask most sports fans what they think about the song, it’s hard to imagine getting anything but a second of silence followed by some almost Segeresque recollection of watching some game in 1992 or 1993 that had no impact on the season. By being the ultimate game day commercial for over a decade “Like a Rock” became an unlikely sports anthem. Not a “We Will Rock You” jock jam to pump up the crowd, but a song that plays for the solitary fan at home or at the bar. It’s a minute to ponder what’s so great about sports, cars, and really, America. It’s one of the great tricks in advertising history. Don Draper would be proud.
The connection between the commercial and sports wasn’t lost on the man who wrote the song. “My son’s three, and he and I watch baseball and football games on TV together all the time,” Seger told a reporter in 1996. “The commercial will come on and he’ll look over at me with a big smile on his face. I’ll nod to him and say, ‘that’s Daddy.’ And he and I will sing the song together. I’m from Cartown and these are my people. I get a lot of thanks for it.”
Yet for nearly three decades, until 2013, “Like a Rock” was missing from Seger’s live set. Although he would say it had more to do with Rick Vito leaving the Silver Bullet Band to play with Fleetwood Mac than rejecting a song his more novice fans knew from a car commercial, one of the most well-known Seger song stayed fixed in the memories of people who might not have been familiar with his work besides some of his hits like “Old Time Rock and Roll,” “Turn the Page,” or “Shakedown” as the song from the Chevy commercial.
But no base of sports fans or Seger fans probably feel as much an attachment to “Like a Rock” or the truck commercials that took it from a hit to a defining anthem quite like fans from Seger’s part of the country. He’s to the Midwest what Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey; Seger’s a warm memory on a frozen night when there’s a horrible winter wind sweeping off the nearby Great Lake that you could easily mistake for an ocean. That’s not because of the Chevy commercial; Seger is just the quintessential singer of Midwetern rock and roll. He worked and worked until it finally paid off, and that’s what a lot of his songs are about. And while the track transcending the rest of Seger’s strong songbook has a little to do with the fact that Chevrolet spent more money on ad buys in the Midwest than other parts of the country, it has much more to do with the time period when it ran. From the Everyday Joe jab at then-President George Bush (“Kinder? Gentler? No way.“) to the imagery, the commercials are supposed to be a tribute to good Midwestern values, to getting dirty and looking rough after a hard day on the job. Filled with shots of working people when the popular theme was that through it all, the country made things; a time before anybody would dare say in public America wasn’t great anymore, before more wars, collapses and bailouts. It’s a different time entirely. A time when things maybe weren’t as great as we liked to say they were, but we had the Bulls, Twins, Pistons, Wolverines and other teams to get us through the days. And that’s why looking at any of those commercials so ubiquitous to the sports-viewing experience for 12 years, it’s really hard to hard not to feel good about things, despite what the news says. They’re already a throwback, but just like rock and roll, we’re just as nostalgic for the way sports were back whenever. Today will always seem better tomorrow, just like a Bob Seger song.