At a 1988 meeting in New York City, Jeff Rowe, Vice President of Programming for VH1, challenged marketing consultant Jim Cahill to come up with a “mushroom cloud sized” promotion for the nascent cable channel. A few years earlier VH1’s sister channel MTV had benefited considerably from its indisputably wacky “Paint the Mutha Pink” contest, wherein one entrant won a “party house” in Bloomington, Indiana, that he or she was then required to repaint in a vivid shade of—you guessed it—pink. A host of other prizes, including a Jeep, massive amounts of Hawaiian Punch and a private concert featuring “Pink Houses” singer John Cougar Mellencamp, were also included. Cahill had to come up with something for VH1 that would overshadow the pink-house campaign, and he had only a few short days in which to do it.
While MTV was focused primarily on teens, VH1 was intended to lure baby boomers, so Cahill racked his brain trying to come up with an epic idea that would encompass this broad demographic. “I didn’t have a lot of time,” he remembers, “so I definitely felt some pressure. Right after the meeting in New York, I flew back to California, and on my way home from the airport I was caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway. While sitting there, going nowhere, I happened to glance at the other side of the freeway just as a 1962 Corvette rolled by. That was it: a Corvette giveaway!”
To his great frustration Cahill had never owned a Corvette, but as someone who had admired these cars for many years, he knew how powerful their hold on people’s emotions could be. He also knew they would resonate strongly with VH1’s target audience. “The Corvette was, and to this day remains, a baby-boomer icon,” he explains. “It’s something people aspire to own, just as I always aspired to own one, and it spans the generations. There are Corvettes for people who grew up with Elvis, Corvettes for people who grew up with the Beatles, and Corvettes for people who grew up with the Eagles.”
In thinking about it further, and drawing upon his own unsatisfied lust for the marque, Cahill asked himself which model-year Corvette would be best to offer up in a contest. “I began by asking myself, which model year would I most want to own? Every model year!”
And just like that, the idea to give away one of every year Corvette, going all the way back to 1953 and running right up through 1989, was born. And for maximum impact, all 36 cars would be awarded to a single winner. Cahill knew immediately that he had his mushroom-cloud-sized promotion, but he still faced the monumental task of convincing MTV Networks that it was something worth doing. He had a powerful ally in Rowe, the aforementioned head of programming for VH1, but he still had to convince senior management, including Tom Freston, who was then president and CEO of the network.
To get everyone on board, Cahill designed a presentation befitting the occasion. “The ‘abracadabra’ pitch culminated with me pulling the cover off of 36 scale-model Corvettes to reveal the idea. The entire pitch was just six words. Thirty-six Corvettes. One Winner. No Kidding. Tom immediately said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and the whole conference room went [crazy]. It was one of the most exciting pitch meetings I’ve ever attended. With everyone on board with the idea, we set off to do [what would be] cable TV’s most successful promotion.”
Rowe put Cahill in charge of the entire contest, so he was responsible for organizing it, buy all of the Corvettes, caring for them until the giveaway and promoting the whole thing. Before Cahill hit the road running however, MTV General Manager Jarl Mohn had some sage advice. “Jarl told me to buy all of the cars right away, because if someone calls a finance meeting and analyzes this, the idea will be killed. But if the cars are already purchased, it’ll be too late to stop us.”