If you do it right, an advertisement can tell a story just as effectively as a book, a movie, a TV show or anything else. And for the past four years Chrysler has been selling us a story of an economic downturn, a city and a nation in crisis, and now, a big comeback. So where does it go next?
Let's start by winding the clock back to Super Bowl 45 in February 2011. That game happened a little more than a year and a half after Chrysler's bankruptcy and subsequent bailout by the U.S. taxpayers. Back then, Chrysler (and General Motors) was barely starting its recovery after a decade that ended with disaster.
While it was still than two years before the city would officially go bankrupt, Detroit too was in dire straits, dogged by media reports of abandoned houses and financial crises and plummeting population numbers.
And knee deep into the recession from which we still suffer, America wasn't much better, having closed out 2010 with an unemployment rate pretty consistently near 10 percent all year.
So that's why the original Imported from Detroit ad by Portland's Wieden & Kennedy with Eminem was such a coup. It was gutsy at a time when Chrysler, the people of Detroit and a sizable number of Americans felt like they took a beating worse than the one Denver took Sunday night. The ad stuck up for the little guy in all of us. It said that if you count us out — Chrysler, Detroiters, Americans, all of us — you're dead wrong.
So what if it was heavy on the flag-waving; if you can't do that at a Super Bowl, where can you do it? And so what if Eminem drove the lame re-badged Sebring that was the 200 at the time? (They didn't use the more-palatable 300 because that's built in Canada.) I don't think you can watch that ad without getting chills. I know I can't.
With that ad, Chrysler set up this hard-working, everyman, rah-rah-America comeback narrative that they followed up with in 2012 with the now-famous (and highly controversial) "Halftime in America" spot with Clint Eastwood.
In 2012 the economy wasn't much better than it was a year earlier, if it was at all. In some ways that made Eastwood's ad even better than Eminem's. It hit home in a harder way. It becomes less an ad for cars and more a story about all of us and what we were going through collectively.
But it was cautiously optimistic, too. Eastwood told us that there's light at the end of this tunnel.
People are out of work and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback. And we're all scared, because this isn't a game.
The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.
[...] This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it's halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.
You hear that, world? America is starting her comeback, Eastwood told us. And so is Chrysler, even if a good many of the cars and trucks in that ad were holdovers from before the bailout.
The next year Chrysler followed up with the brilliant "So God Made a Farmer" ad with a narration by Paul Harvey. It's one of the best truck ads ever, and while it's brilliant, it's got many of the same down-home, folksy, hard-work-is-its-own-reward tropes you see in any truck ad. It's also rural-centric, less about the American economic comeback as a whole, and doesn't quite fit as thematically with the "we're on the way back" spirit of the other two ads.
Chrysler certainly rectified that this year with the ad starring (barely) the 2015 Chrysler 200. Improbably narrated by counterculture superhero Bob Dylan — who, to be fair, has sold out before — the ad can best be summed up in one word: "Swagger."
Right now, in 2014, Chrysler probably has the best lineup they've had in years. The new Jeep Cherokee is a highly impressive product and a sales success. They've struggled with selling the Dodge Dart, but the well-equipped and good-looking new 200 sedan seems promising, though it's important to remember no one has driven it yet.
And maybe things are at least little better in America in 2014 than they were in, say, 2008, 2009 or even 2012. Though it's of little consolation to the chronically unemployed, our national joblessness rate finally dipped below 7 percent at the end of 2013. It feels like we're finally starting to pull out of this dark tunnel we've been in for years.
But after the underdog themes of the first two ads, Bob Dylan's narration makes it feel like Chrysler and America are all the way back on top again. Everything is fantastic now, thanks for asking! America is number one, don't you know? It even leads with "Is there anything more American than America?", a line so bewildering it feels like self-parody the first time you hear it. The whole thing fit with the kind of "happy days are here again" mood we saw at the Detroit Auto Show this year.
Like the other two ads, especially the first one, it stresses all the things Americans do better than anybody else. Individuality, originality, hard work, bootstraps, things like that. But this one goes so balls-out it borders on arrogance:
So let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone.
We… will build… your car.
I guess someone forgot to tell Mr. Dylan that an Italian company owns Chrysler these days, and a lot of those cars they're building have Alfa Romeo guts.
So after telling the story of how America is down but not out over the last few years, did Chrysler jump the gun with this latest ad? I don't know. Maybe. But there's also something to be said for a celebrating a little success after being on the brink just a few years earlier. The same could be said for many of us.
I just wonder where their narrative goes from here. What was once brilliant and stirring is starting to feel a little tired, and even like spiking the football, to borrow a football metaphor.
With any luck, America will continue to recover from this economic downturn, and so will our car companies. It will be interesting to see if, and how, Chrysler chooses to tell the next chapter of that come Super Bowl 2015.