Chrysler created ripples with its Super Bowl ad, just like it did last year. But these aren't all warm and friendly, lapping-at-the-beach kinds of waves. The brand's Clint Eastwood commercial at Super Bowl XLVI half-time — which continues on the "Imported From Detroit" theme established at last year's Super Bowl — has set off more of a barrage of criticism from the right that the spot was nothing more than a veiled re-election ad for the Obama campaign.
Chrysler released the transcript of Eastwood's voiceover, which asserts that "This country can't be knocked out with one punch," while both the brand and the 81-year-old actor/director have disavowed any political intent.
Eastwood told Fox News on Monday, "I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. I am not supporting any politician at this time." Eastwood also commented to the New York Times that he plans to donate his fee for the ad to charity, reiterating: "The ad doesn’t have a political message. It is about American spirit, pride and job growth."
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne also argued on a Detroit talk show on Monday that the ad had "zero political content. It was not intended to be any type of political overture on our part. We are as apolitical as you can make us ... 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."
Conservative pundits weren't buying it. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove was "offended" by the ad, while Mark Steyn, Rush Limbaugh's Monday fill-in host called Chrysler "socialistic" and railed at what he saw as an implied/inferred endorsement of the president who bailed out Chrysler and handed its carcass to Italy's Fiat, and encouragement for the "second half" of his administration, meaning his re-election prospects. (Steyn also balked at Chrysler's 2011 Super Bowl spot with Eminem.
In any event, it's easy to see how the ad has been interpreted politically. For one thing, it was missing an actual vehicle, leaving Chrysler wide open to charges that it was peddling something (the brand's can-do spirit? an emotion?) other than automobiles. The ad was cleverly placed, at "halftime," urging Americans to persevere. Some doubt that a pep talk from Eastwood and the Rodney "No Respect!" Dangerfield of American car brands somehow could be deigned to have an impact on the battered American psyche.
As for whether the ad was a home run (or even a base hi), the post-game consideration figures on Edmunds.com bore out that Super Bowl viewers weren't overly impressed by the ad. The spot was, curiously, shut out of USA Today's Ad Bowl rankings.
Last year's widely acclaimed Eminem ad also was broadly thematic, promoting the comebacks of both Detroit and Chrysler. But at least that ad actually showcased a car, the Chrysler 200, which then took off in sales despite being a rather modest vehicle.
True, brand executives couldn't go back to that exact playbook for Super Bowl XLVI. The company simply is doing too well once again for the sad-sack routine. Yet they wanted to continue to position Chrysler as a sort of underdog. And somehow they decided to make Chrysler stand for the whole country.
That was their mistake. With no actual vehicle in the ad, it had to stand alone as something else: a polemic. And when you talk as starkly about the state of America with an American icon such as Eastwood, and throw out the term "second half" in the middle of a heated election cycle, you're clearly inviting something more from everyone.
Rallying around ... what? whom? The president who bailed the company out and is shooting for a "second" term? Or maybe even an alternative, say, a Republican, to reverse the "damage" he might have done in the "first" half? Just support American manufacturing? Chrysler itself? We've already done that. So the ad invited criticism from every quarter.
As the week has gone on, there is no escaping the context of the ad either. On Monday, for instance, former President George W. Bush explained to the national convention of America's auto dealers why he went along with helping out Chrysler and GM.
And Chrysler executives might have felt that others were piling on, as GM CMO Joel Ewanick told Jalopnik that he considers Ford trucks — and by implication, not Chrysler's Ram brand or any others — Chevy's true competition in a "Coke vs. Pepsi" sort of rivalry. That's why Chevrolet took a shot at Ford instead of Ram in its controversial Super Bowl 46 ad for the Chevrolet Silverado.
When it comes to an industry as important, closely watched — and always politicized — as autos, it only takes a surface scratch to get under those metal skins.
Below: watch Chrysler's Super Bowl 45 spot with Eminem and tell us — more effective than this year's Eastwood spot?