The Inside Story: Chrysler's Risky Eminem Super Bowl Commercial

The Super Bowl Commercial That Everyone Is Talking About Almost Didn't Happen

Over the past decade, rap legend Eminem has been approached over 100 times to license his classic "Lose Yourself." Up until now, he has refused all bidders, turning down millions of dollars along the way, according to Joel Martin, who controls the Eminem music catalog and has one-third of the writing credit on the song.

But that was until Chrysler chief marketing officer Olivier Francois started selling Martin on how much he wanted the music, and how he had an idea to show off Detroit to the Super Bowl audience, the largest TV audience of the year. To seal the deal, Francois drove a new Chrysler 200 to Martin's office in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale a few days into the New Year. The car was fresh off of the assembly line in neaby Sterling Heights, and hadn't even gone on sale. Francois had Martin and Eminem (whose real name is Marshall Bruce Mathers III) drive the car, as well as a new Chrysler 300, to try and get the music legend to play ball.

"The 200 was like $18,000 and felt like a BMW... We were really impressed," says Martin, who told AOL Autos they agreed to take millions of dollars less than what they had been previously offered in order to be part of the Chrysler ad. "[It was] about 20 percent of what we could have gotten from someone else," he said.

Martin said the idea for the ad that would show Detroit for what it really is, from hard working people to the abandoned buildings, as well as the art and music scene, appealed to them. "The script they showed us was like nothing I had ever seen before," he said, "and Marshall felt the same way."

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But he and Eminem had doubts about both the idea and the slogan written by Wieden & Kennedy, the ad agency based in Portland, Oregon. They didn't think "Imported From Detroit" would make it through the bureaucracy at Chrysler. To them, it sounded like one of those ideas that a company gets ginned up about, but then kills for being to crazy and bold. "We just didn't think it was going to fly," said Martin.

The first phase was allowing Chrysler to use the song (though not the lyrics) for a press conference at the North America International Auto Show in Detroit on January 11. Composer Luis Resto, who has the third credit on the song, actually came to Detroit's Cobo Hall and played the music live to go with Francois' presentation. Though the Super Bowl ad deal was not in place yet, Martin and Resto did not charge for the auto show usage. "We were into something pretty interesting, so we wanted to see where it was going," says Resto, who agreed to make some changes to the music based on what Francois was asking for -- an unusual role for the CEO of an auto maker brand to play.

In the week following the auto show, more negotiations about a Super Bowl ad continued. When Eminem eventually agreed to not only have the music be used in the commercial, but to appear in it as well, Francois was on the west coast at a press junket. He had to rush back to Detroit and start overseeing the shooting the ad the week of January 23 -- just two weeks before the game. It would show Detroit at its grayest and grimmest.

Which car would be used in the ad? The whole idea of the ad is to position Chrysler as a legitimate luxury brand. But the Chrysler 200 has a starting price under $20,000, and it has not enjoyed terrific reviews in the press. It was adapted from the Chrysler Sebring, a much-derided model that had questionable styling and a sub-par interior. While the new 200 is vastly improved, perhaps the more obvious choice to star in the Super Bowl ad alongside Eminem would have been the Chrysler 300 sedan. This is a first-class redesign of a well-loved product that reaches a fully optioned sticker price of around $46,000. The problem is that the 300 is built in Brampton, Ontario. Though not far from Detroit, Chrysler felt it could not launch the new brand idea to a Super Bowl audience with a car built in Canada.

Even after settling on the car and getting Eminem's full involvement, there were a few more wrinkles to iron out. The NFL had not allowed two-minute ads, establishing a limit of 90-seconds. The script, which called for taking viewers through numerous images of the city of Detroit and winding up at the Fox Theatre with Eminem and a local African-American choir, required two minutes to be told properly, Francois believed.

Then there was the iced tea issue. Eminem was appearing in another Super Bowl ad -- sort of. Months before, Eminem had agreed to have a claymation image of himself star in a Lipton Brisk iced tea ad. The script calls for the clay Eminem to act like a diva, complaining about the demands of doing a commercial, and how he insists in shooting in his own house so he doesn't have to go anywhere, and records his own songs. When a claymation corporate executive in the ad tells him he can't rename the product, the rap star shoves him off the roof of the building. Ouch.

The ad was anything but serious, and would be juxtaposed against the much more earnest message from Chrysler. It would also mean that Chrysler would no longer be unique in using Eminem. "We felt so strongly about the idea and script that we looked right past it," said Francois.

It paid off. "Chrysler 200" was the number two search term on Super Bowl Sunday on Google, beating out the Black Eyed Peas, the band that performed during halftime. Search traffic for the Chrysler 200 on AOL Autos was 685 percent higher than normal on Monday and it topped all vehicle searches on AOL's NBC Nightly News did a feature on the ad. And a poll conducted by auto industry trade weekly Automotive News, which asked readers to rank all the auto ads in the big game, chose the Chrysler ad by a long-shot, with more than 40 percent choosing it by Tuesday after the game. At publication, the ad had received over five million viewings on YouTube, a number that will likely grow, as Chrysler was one of the only advertisers not to make their commercial available before the game.

"In a way, the Brisk ad kind of set up the Chrysler ad because the character talks about why he never does ads," said Martin.

Indeed, Eminem had appeared in an Apple iTunes ad several years ago, though it was just to promote the iTunes release of a greatest hits album. Apple, says Martin, asked to use "Lose Yourself" to promote the whole Apple product line. Eminem and Martin turned down Apple and its celebrity CEO Steve Jobs.

"The city of Detroit is really important to Marshall," says Martin. "Two years ago, Marshall was down for the count, and he understands what Chrysler is trying to do," says the rapper's partner, referring to the extremely poor reception of his 2009 album "Relapse," which was released after a five year hiatus.

That was the same year that Chrysler was forced into bankruptcy and accepted a bailout from the Federal government to stay in business. "I felt very strongly about this piece of music and Eminem," says Francois. "I don't believe in using celebrities and famous people just for the sake of it... Their story has to make sense in the story of the ad."

Francois was born in France, and has been running the marketing for Fiat in Europe, as well as the overall business of the Lancia brand in Europe. His job in the U.S. is similar, running all marketing for Chrysler, as well as all the business of the Chrysler brand. As a foreigner, and only a part-time resident in the Detroit area, his interest in the city's plight and story ironically runs deeper in some ways than auto industry executives who have spent their whole career around the city.

Eminem has been doing more publicity and promotion work in support of his latest album, "Recovery," with the National Hockey League, video game company Activision, and Pepsi, which markets Brisk. He is also performing on this weekend's Grammy awards show, where he has eleven nominations, the most of any artist. But his anthem, "Lose Yourself," is only going to be used for Chrysler. The ad will run in shorter versions on other TV broadcasts.

Advertising Age magazine referred to Eminem as "the comeback story of the year," which is another association Francois would like to see for Chrysler, as well as the City of Detroit.

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