Though the rural town of Ravenel, South Carolina, contains only 799 households, their Ford and Chevy dealerships got into a billboard battle in March that went national. The first strike came from Ravenel Ford when the dealership put up a new billboard for the 2019 Ford Ranger. Framed for all the town to see, it boasted an audacious tagline: “Behind every good Ford is a Chevy.” It was a line in the sand, a provocation that would not stand.
As such, rival local dealership Marchant Chevrolet erected a billboard in response. The only reason a Chevy truck owner would ever be behind a Ford is simple: “Because you won’t move out of the fast lane.”
After a local snapped photos of the two billboards and photoshopped them together, the post went viral on Reddit. But it didn’t end there, sparking yet another battle in the never-ending Ford trucks versus Chevy trucks Brand War. Fought in memes, this drama naturally sprawled across online battlefields such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr and the various Chans.
Trucks are, and always have been, a symbol of hyper-masculinity. The same way a Subaru is considered a car for lesbians, trucks can function as a corrective for pretty much any latent fear a very traditional straight male might have. Thus, whatever a man might feel insecure about, you’ll find it expressed as a Ford versus Chevy truck meme.
This impulse to use a macho brand as armor to quell existential fears, to leverage a brand-as-personal-identity, can reach deep into a man’s psyche and affect his sense of himself. Case in point: Last month, a 56-year-old Virginian man went to a pre-Easter dinner at his girlfriend’s home, and apparently, he got into a fight with his girlfriend’s son over which brand was better: Ford or Chevy. The night ended with him shooting his girlfriend five times in the leg and her son once in the arm; meanwhile, the son’s girlfriend was hit twice by ricocheting bullets. Luckily, no one died.
I ask Lesley Wimbush, an automotive journalist, truck-lover and big fan of discussing engines, towing-capacity and torque, what she thinks distinguishes these two brands. She’s quick to describe the stereotypical Chevy guy: “You get the Dale Earnhardt sorta guys. The guys who are more likely to have the American flag hanging, that kind of thing. They just had their 100-year anniversary last year, I think it was at Texas Motor Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was there. So you know it was a whole lot of rednecks.”
On the other hand, Wimbush says, “Ford seems to be a little more progressive. They came out with their aluminum bodies, and they were the first to get the turbo four-cylinder engines and stuff. Ford guys are people who seem more accepting of new technology.”
But differences aside, I wonder if some people don’t just love to hate the other brand. “It’s a tribal thing,” Wimbush agrees. “It reminds me of the guys who are really stupid about their sports teams. The ones who get in fights. They tattoo names into their skin, or shave Dale Earnhardt’s number in the back of their hair. There’s kind of a mentality where they’re trying to find something to identify with. It’s the same thing with their favorite truck brand.”
There were the Cola Wars in the 1980s, when Coke and Pepsi waged battle via blind taste tests and ad campaigns that touted the results. The decade also saw a brand war between McDonald’s and Burger King, which was given a rather uninspired nickname: the Burger Wars (sensing a trend here?). Also at that time, there were big tech brand battles, like Apple versus IBM, a rivalry that famously gave us the classic 1984-themed commercial for Apple announcing the introduction of the Macintosh. In the 1990s, Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates came to embody a new front in this same battle, as the internet transformed their fight into a skirmish between Apple versus Microsoft. (Later, this turned into the sometimes humorous ad series “Mac vs. PC.”)
But when it comes to brand rivalries, the big one that changed everything was the fight between Sega and Nintendo, dubbed The Console Wars, which reached its apex with the crossover game Super Smash Bros. The Console Wars are a historic, ongoing brand battle that’s set the model for how corporations build fandoms today. Consumers of the consoles loved the tech, games, music, artwork, and most of all, the characters. And by association, they became loyal stans of the brands. Which, in turn, became an identity. You were a Sega kid or a Nintendo kid. (In “Juicy,” Biggie Smalls gave a very famous shout-out to Sega Genesis.) Around this same time, Apple was figuring out how to turn the idea of brand marketing into a quasi-religious effect: Brand as identity, brand as fandom, brand as near-salvation.
But the American truck companies? Not so much. They were slow to memes. Their consumers tend to be on the conservative side, and thus, slower to adopt technology and social media. Obviously, though, they’ve since closed that gap.
Yet, Brad Kim, editor of KnowYourMeme.com, actually considers them more as passionate anti-fans. “Any conversation topic that seeds memes, the more polarized the subject matter is, the greater the volume. Because what’s driving the production or making of the memes is driven by rivalry, it also tends to exhaust all codes of memes that are being spoken, which I’m seeing with the Chevy and Ford memes,” he explains, before reframing the issue in new terms. “It might be better to categorize this Ford-Chevy meme war as anti-Ford memes, or as evidence of a Ford anti-fandom, rather than Ford versus Chevy. Anti-fandom has more energy and agency than fandom.”
Not to mention, as our online humor becomes more unisex and genderless, it makes heteronormative, hyper-gendered humor like truck memes stand out even more (“What we call ‘normie memes,’” says Kim). If you look at memes for conversational value, women certainly seem more likely to use a meme to establish community, as a way for another person to identify with her via the meme. Whereas traditional-minded men seem to use memes for jokes that simultaneously assert their identity and shit on someone else’s. “We have to start with the assumption that meme culture did stem out of a very, very male-centric subcultures — namely, tech and video gaming. And sports and video games are still very fast-growing and male-centric meme cultures. But that’s been changing, drastically.”
But back to the billboard battle that launched the most recent skirmish in the Ford versus Chevy online meme war. In order to get the story behind the two battling dealerships, I called Rob Marchant of Marchant Chevy to hear his side of the story.
Ready for the plot twist?
Both the Ravenel Ford dealership and the Marchant Chevy dealership are owned by the same guy. It was all just a PR stunt. One not fought for territory, but for truck sales and publicity. Which means both sides won.
Why did Marchant think that starting a fight between his two dealerships would be good for truck sales? Well, he tried other approaches before, but none of them worked until he embraced anti-fandom. “For years, I’ve tried to link the two dealerships in some way, because both stores have good reputations. But I haven’t gotten any sort of traction with that. I’ve known people for 30 years who still don’t realize I have a Ford store. So I’ve come to the conclusion, why fight it?,” Marchant says in his summer-soft Southern accent, laughing. “Instead of trying to advertise them jointly, why don’t I just let them bicker against each other? That’s drawn a lot of interest and word-of-mouth advertising. Basically, it’s increased the brand awareness having ‘em ‘fight each other.’ I get stopped at the gas station, or wherever. People will be like, ‘I love your billboards.’ And that’s very positive. People love seeing them.”
The bigger question: When someone approaches him at a gas station –– since he’s a salesman –– can he spot a Chevy guy versus a Ford man?
He laughs, but then his business instincts kick in: “I can actually tell. But I don’t want to get into that.” He laughs again. “This is another reason why I did it. I don’t have many people at all who shop between the two brands. People are so loyal to either Ford or Chevrolet. Everybody’s so brand loyal. They love to fight amongst themselves about who’s best. I think it’s an American thing. It pulls from those ideas of blue collar, Made in America and apple pie. It harkens back to everything General Motors and Ford did for the war effort, when they converted all of their factories to military production during the world wars. It has very deep roots.”
When I mention how fascinating it is to see how brand identity is morphing into a form of personal identity, Marchant deftly cuts to the quick: “Yes, and it’s kind of creepy.”