For the second straight year in the Super Bowl, Chrysler took a big chance, spending millions of dollars to advertise a message that doesn't have a lot to do with selling cars, but rather an idea, or ideal, and a message about the city of Detroit.
This year's Super Bowl ad in the "Imported from Detroit" campaign the company kicked off last year, though, has elicited plenty of admiring Tweets, but also some charges and suggestions that Chrysler went political, producing an ad that is clearly consistent with the message strategy of President Obama who is seeking re-election.
The ad, featuring Clint Eastwood talking to viewers about "Halftime in America," is a poignant and dramatic piece that came off as almost a "Letter from Clint to The Republicans" about America bouncing back in a metaphorical economic second half. It's tough, though, not to draw a line between the metaphor in the ad and Obama seeking a second term. The messaging in the ad, after all, seems to be right out of the Obama rhetoric book: "After those trials, we rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that's what we do."
Eastwood's lines were referring to the bailout of General Motors, Chrysler and auto suppliers in late 2008 and 2009. Detroit has been bouncing back strong, with General Motors and Chrysler, as well as Ford, earning billions and hiring again. Republicans, including the presumed nominee, Michigan native Mitt Romney, have been flatly against the bailout of the auto industry. Ironically, Eastwood, a well-known libertarian Republican, has also voiced objection to the bailout, so the casting of the 81-year old actor is ironic.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Chrysler also shot a version of the ad with actor Al Pacino, and that rocker Bruce Springsteen was considered as well.
Chrysler Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne flatly denies that the ad was intended to have any political overtones. Marchionne, in an interview during Detroit WJR's Paul W Smith news radio program, said: "It has zero political content. I think we need to be careful, and God knows, I mean I can't stop anybody from associating themselves with a message but it was not intended to be any type of political overture on our part. We are as apolitical as you can make us. You know, we're just an ingredient of a big machine here in this country that makes us go on. I wasn't expressing a view and certainly nobody inside Chrysler was attempting to influence decisions. The message is sufficiently universal and neutral that it should be appealing to everybody in this country and I sincerely hope that it doesn't get utilized as political fodder in a debate."
Tim Skubick, political consultant for Detroit's FOX 2 affiliate, thinks different. "Here's this commercial touting the comeback of America with Detroit and Chrysler leading the way," says Skubick. "I think this does play into the dialogue in this presidential race."
For fans and followers of political advertising, it is tough not to draw a line between "It's Half-time in America," and the storied Ronald Reagan re-election ad of 1984, "It's Morning Again in America."
Eastwood's involvement in the ad is especially puzzling. "I'm a big hawk on cutting the deficit," Eastwood told the Los Angeles Times last November. "I was against the stimulus thing too. We shouldn't be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can't figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn't be the CEO."
His appearance in the ad set off both conservatives and progressives. "Agh. WTH? Did I just see Clint Eastwood fronting an auto bailout ad???" Michelle Malkin, the conservative columnist, tweeted during the game. Greg Mitchell, blogger for the liberal paper The Nation, also weighed in, tweeting, "Republican Clint Eastwood claims 'we all pulled together' to save Detroit--wrong, your party did not, big guy."
The headline in the Hollywood Reporter asked: "Was Chrysler's Super Bowl Commercial a Nod to Obama?"
And here's Amy Walter writing in The AtlanticWire.com: "President Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod took to Twitter and highlighted Chrysler's chill-inducing, Clint Eastwood-driven 'Halftime in America' Superbowl ad--no surprise since it makes for a pretty good Obama re-election ad."
Eastwood's role in the ad could also be tied to his turn as a retired autoworker in Gran Torino, a film that was as much about the decay of the city of Detroit as it was about the redemption of Eastwood's character. While that movie was shot in Detroit, the ad was, in another twist of irony, shot in Los Angeles and New Orleans, according to several published reports, while just stock footage from Detroit was used.
Is it a sequel?
In many ways "Half-time in America" is definitely a sequel to Chrysler's Super Bowl ad last year, "Born of Fire," featuring Detroit native and rap icon Eminem. That ad, hailed by many as the best of the game, broke all conventions in that it was two-minutes long and held up Detroit as a selling point for Chrysler. Most of the country has come to regard Detroit as an urban wasteland. Many pundits on the east and west coast criticized the multi-million dollar ad buy as irrelevant to people on the coasts.
Chrysler has stuck with the strategy, though the 2012 version was meant to support all of Chrysler's brands, not just Chrysler. The ad was tagged with Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Jeep and Mopar.
Last year's ad was more about the city, the people of Detroit, the grit and fight in the people and workers, and the idea that the cars and trucks that come from the Motor City are equal to the competition or better. This year's ad reaches further, making a bigger connection between where the country is and where Detroit is, and has been. The idea in this ad is that the country can learn something from the comeback of the automakers, and the fight that is in the hearts and heads of Detroiters.
In an election year, with the Michigan Republican primary just a few weeks away, and the battle-lines drawn between the anti-bailout Romney and GOP against the architect of the bailout, Obama, it is very difficult to understand how Chrysler executives can say they didn't think the ad would be or could be taken as political.
But since the goal of a Super Bowl ad is to get attention, this ought to do it.