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Chrysler's Super Bowl Ad: Debated, Like It or Not

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When I saw Chrysler's Super Bowl ad at halftime on Feb. 5, I emailed the executive who conceived it, Chrysler marketing chief Olivier Francois, and told him I didn't like it so much.

It was my first viewing of the ad, and thus my initial reaction from the gut. I thought it was too dark. Unlike last year's Eminem Super Bowl ad, I thought it didn't do enough to lift Detroit or Chrysler -- and wasn't that the point?

But after watching the video perhaps 10 times since that initial viewing, I have warmed to the ad, and recognized that my initial reaction seems to be in the minority. I've also come to think my response was tainted by all the election year claptrap and hogwash I watch and listen to on cable TV and satellite radio on a daily basis.

Driven by the sharp reactions to the ad communicated via Twitter and in post-game interviews from political pundits and power-brokers like GOP fundraiser and former Bush Administration official Karl Rove, the media seized on the fact that the ad seemed to feature working-class folks from a Midwestern industrial town and the ad copy seemed to be right out of an Obama campaign speechwriter's notebook, extolling the virtues of the auto industry bailout. The charge that Chrysler was somehow sending an early Valentine to the Obama campaign as thanks for the 44th president green-lighting the federal bailout of Chrysler in 2009 started to take shape on the airwaves.

I initially thought the ad was a clever piece of marketing Jiu Jitsu, designed to create maximum buzz and chatter for the Chrysler after the game. Casting well-known Republican libertarian-cum-bailout criticizer Clint Eastwood was supposed to inoculate Chrysler from the pro-Obama charge.

How could it be, I asked myself, that all these smart people at Chrysler and the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy had no clue their commercial would be seen through a political lens, especially just a couple weeks before the Michigan GOP primary? Even the line, "It's Halftime in America," made me think immediately of Ronald Reagan's "Its Morning Again in America" spot -- and that it's coming up to "halftime in the Obama two-term presidency."

Francois says a possible political interpretation of the ad never come up in conversations during the two months of its development. He also says "creating buzz and chatter was never even part of the consideration."

Should we believe this very clever, intelligent, French-born executive heading both Fiat and Chrysler's global marketing? No buzz intended?

Olivier says the ad's aim was to offer a logical sequel to last year's Eminem ad, which ushered in the "Imported From Detroit" tagline as a slogan for the Chrysler brand. That line, repeated in this year's ad, is now being used as an umbrella theme for all the company's brands, including Dodge, Jeep, Ram and Mopar.

"We are trying to shine a light on the values we hold in Detroit, values that we are trying to embrace for Chrysler and the values we think our customers identify with," Francois said. "I know I am French and come from an Italian company, but I feel very much like I am gaining cultural citizenship in America, if not legal citizenship. And our team, which is led by Sergio Marchionne, is very serious about communicating what we think is great about this place and these people to the rest of the country."

Francois said Marchionne, the Fiat and Chrysler CEO, was intimately involved in the creation of this year's ad, right down to writing and editing copy. Chrysler brand marketing chief Saad Shehab also had a hand in its writing and editing. And Clint Eastwood also had a lot to do with shaping the ad, choosing locations and writing copy. Eastwood was surprised Republican critics and Obama supporters felt that the ad was "pro-Obama."

But Eastwood's spoken lines tee up, like it or not, an inevitable political discussion that will take place this month in advance of the Michigan GOP primary and into the fall, especially if Michigan native Mitt Romney goes on to face off against President Obama in the general election.

Was the bailout the right thing to do? Was it money well spent? Was it fair to industries and companies that did not get bailed out? Was it too generous to the unions?

The key lines: "[The people of Detroit] almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now, the Motor City is fighting again ... but after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one, because that's what we do. We find a way through tough times. And if we can't find a way, then we make one ... how do we come from behind ... how do we come together, and how do we win ... it's halftime, America, and our second half is about to begin."

The vast majority of Republicans, including all the current presidential candidates, were against the government-assisted bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. They believed the companies should have been allowed to go into bankruptcy court without aid from Uncle Sam, so that creditors could just pick over the companies, buy or be granted what they thought was valuable -- Chevy, Jeep, Ram truck, Cadillac, real estate, etc. -- and liquidate the rest.

But amid the meltdown of the financial sector, there was no financing for an organized bankruptcy that would have allowed the companies to come out as whole at the end of the process, meaning it would have been a liquidation free-for-all. And as private equity companies usually do, there would have been a fire-sale of assets, followed by an inevitable move to get as much headcount and production out of Michigan and into Southern states and Mexico -- as far away from the stronghold of the United Auto Workers as possible.

The reason Southeast Michigan is clawing its way back is because hiring is happening. GM is the biggest automaker in the world again, and making billions. Chrysler is in the black and posting solid progress. Ford is making billions. Suppliers are bouncing back financially. The companies did not close or move away. GM and Chrysler have made substantial investments in the city and surrounding suburbs. Communities are still fighting to get back to par, but they haven't been destroyed.

The sentiments and words in Chrysler's ad reflect the way the automaker's executives and Eastwood feel about the values they find in the working people who design, engineer, market and sell the vehicles produced by the company. Their words also seem to support the idea that high-value manufacturing, such as automobiles, is an important industry to protect and nurture in the U.S. Those values and thoughts also happen to be shared by Obama's administration, and they are a cornerstone of his campaign rhetoric and prose as president.

It all seems to be a right-cross to the jaws of the GOP presidential candidates and the establishment conservatives who both opposed the auto bailout and regularly express disdain for the UAW. All on the biggest TV day of the year with over 100 million people watching.

So it's not difficult for many people to think the content and timing of Chrysler's commercial could have been planned and calculated to maximize buzz, the currency on which most successful ads trade these days (no matter what Francois says he was looking for).

The Chrysler executives and Eastwood say these political themes some of us think we saw were not in their minds or conversations. They sought to make an ad, they say, that simply touched and engaged everyone, not one party or another. Late Thursday, four days after the game, there were 5.8 million YouTube views of the ad. A cursory patrol of comments left by real people -- not pundits or members of the media -- shows those of us in the media are, indeed, in the minority of those who found it possibly pro-Democrat or pro-Obama.

We won't see the ad on TV again, says Olivier. Unlike last year's Eminem ad, it won't be shown in shorter versions for normal ad break. It was meant as a one-time-only event. My guess is that it will be remembered and talked about for at least a few days more. Then the YouTube hits will slow down, and we will move on to other topics.

But the ad -- intentionally or not -- meshes well with the Obama message for the Midwest and especially Michigan. So it wouldn't surprise me if we see the ad pointed to by the president and Democrats for months to come as a reminder of the grit, determination and values of Detroiters and Southeast Michiganders -- and of just who kept the Michigan economy from falling of a cliff.

Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.