It's hard to knock Chrysler's ongoing effort to boost the image of Detroit, and to link its own resurgence with the struggling comeback of the city. But I'm going to.
As anyone who watches "Mad Men," or has worked in advertising, can attest, everybody thinks they're an expert in advertising. Not everybody in a company thinks they can do the job of the chief financial officer or head of manufacturing. But advertising? Everybody has an opinion -- including me.
As I have written before, Chrysler's marketing chief Olivier Francois is "one of the crazy ones." I mean that in a good way. He's taken a lot of chances with Chrysler's advertising and is to be commended. And I think he is on to something with the latest batch of "Imported From Detroit," ads that offer captivating stories.
In one new ad for the Ram pickup, a woman is heard talking about her hard-working husband, his independence and his work ethic in the face of hard times and lost wages. It's as if she's reading from a note she's writing to him. There's a great line in the ad: "Where there is a truck, there is a job."
In another new spot, featuring the Jeep Wrangler, the story is told through the voice of a teenage girl. It sounds like she'ss writing in her journal, or to a friend she left behind in her old neighborhood, about the new city she's moved to with her family.
The stories do not sell, but rather convey. They convey that Chrysler champions people who are resilient and determined not to let hard times and bad luck get them down. And the vehicles play roles in the ads: The Ram is the husband's livelihood; the Jeep is the family car. In both ads, the cars are really integral members of the family.
This campaign started out in 2011, during the Super Bowl with the now infamous ad featuring Eminem and his iconic song "Lose Yourself." It continued this past February with a new ad, "It's Halftime in America" featuring Clint Eastwood.
"Imported from Detroit" began as an ad campaign just for the Chrysler brand, but it's evolved into a tagline, or slogan for you Mad Men fans, that's used for all of Chrysler's brands.
Here is where it's going off the track for me: Though the ads and the strategy are created by Francois and Portland, Ore., agency Wieden + Kennedy, I'm going to insert myself into the role of self-appointed ad wizard, called upon to doctor this strategy to save it from falling by the wayside.
1. Don't use "Imported from Detroit" for the Jeep brand. In all the travails of Chrysler's changed ownership over the last 13 years, and its bankruptcy, Jeep remained the most valuable piece of the company. Though Grand Cherokees are, in fact, made in Detroit, this brand should march forward with its image of American toughness, off-road capability and iconic status. Showing the Wrangler as the vehicle that this little family is using to start anew is just not the way to go.
2. Keep individual brand campaigns for Dodge, Jeep and Ram with unique imagery, voice and slogans. "Imported from Detroit" can be used for the Chrysler brand, and for ads that show all the brands together. But don't use the line for a every brand individually. You'll be sorry. It will be over-exposed and you'll wind up killing it.
3. You need more genuine stories.These ads are nice. But I've quietly suggested to Chrysler that they take $1 million and give it to someone in the company designated to find big ideas and big stories in Detroit about real people and real contributions Chrysler is making to a city it's trying to help in a long-shot comeback. How about $1.2 million, and then spend $100,000 per month doing something concrete and meaningful in the city, and then telling us about it in ads, social media, online video and photo galleries.
4. I feel like this idea of "Imported from Detroit," is in danger of losing its edge and appeal because it's too dependent on mere ads created by a Portland ad agency. It's not rooted enough in the big idea of interesting people creating marvelous solutions for a city they deem worth saving. Some people are finding real solutions for their lives by moving into Detroit, taking advantage of dirt-cheap property prices, and carving out businesses that would have taken much more start-up money in other cities. The ads Chrysler is creating are cool paintings. But these ideas need more real stories behind them to engage viewers outside of Michigan.
5. There is no question that with Detroit facing a possible state takeover in the coming weeks, that the city's operations are still a mess. But the work being done in the city by real people -- from the Cherokees being built at Jefferson North, to the BBQ at Slows, the theater and opera at the Detroit Opera House and Fisher Theater, and the sports all being played downtown at Tiger Stadium, Ford Field and Joe Louis, and much more -- is worth talking about. These are the stories that can connect to Chrysler's vehicles and could be told to give this idea more truth, metal and grit.
Like I said, everyone is an ad expert. Count me in.
Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley, editor-in-chief of AOL Autos. He is a former marketing editor at BusinessWeek, and a former ad executive at three ad agencies.