Once again, the big surprise in this year's bumper crop of Super Bowl ads was Chrysler's two-minute encomium to America starring Clint Eastwood as motivator in chief. It was stirring and patriotic and incoherent and weird, like hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" sung in Italian. There's no better example of the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and just how many of us no longer notice.
Chrysler wasn't selling cars Sunday when it put Eastwood in front of 110 million people. There's only fleeting shots of vehicles in the $10 million' worth of time bought after Madonna's halftime show, none of which would have been enough to lure someone beyond the dealership's doorstep. What Chrysler was selling was its soul -- and the idea that it has one.
Like many activities at Chrysler, its previous owners made several attempts to kill any corporate morale in favor of a financial math only they understood. The owners before them, Germany's Daimler AG, treated Chrysler as the downstairs staff whose duty was to serve the Mercedes in the masters' quarters. By surviving the recession (essentially on a whim by President Barack Obama), Chrysler and corporate parent Fiat have won the opportunity for redefinition, a blank slate for its marketers and the resources to get noticed. The trouble is that turning around a car company takes years, and much of Chrysler's lineup is still a work in progress, but Chrysler needs its new soul now.
This new soul springs from the phrase "Imported from Detroit," one so successfully imprinted on the American conscious following last year's Super Bowl ad that Obama uses it in speeches now. It's a magical line, bidding that the "Detroit" most Americans see as an impoverished foreign country now makes what the world takes. These ads would not work if we didn't want to believe them, to lift up this long-despairing Detroit of artisans and tradespeople with calloused hands and tough yet open hearts.
This year's spot was dominated by Eastwood's gravely voice, emphasized by his silhouette walking toward the camera in a suit that harkens to his "Dirty Harry" era. "It's halftime in America," he growls. "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." And we as a nation rousted from our buffalo wings and microbrews to say, as one, "Who hires Dirty Harry to run a pep rally?"
As Eastwood tells us to get up off the canvas, the questions start gathering: if this is halftime, does that mean the country only has two quarters left to play? "We find a way through tough times, and if we can't find a way, then we'll make one," Eastwood says, in a nonsensical line that sounds lifted from "Space Cowboys." It's also dissonant to hear talk of how "we're all scared" underdogs from the owner of a 6,000-acre private golf course in California. (I visited in August, and it's quite scenic.)
And back in November, Eastwood wasn't so hot about the uplifting potential of America's bailed-out automakers, telling the Los Angeles Times: "We shouldn't be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can't figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn't be the CEO."
Chrysler's entitled to crow about its comeback, bailout or no. It's adding thousands of jobs and winning customers back; its new models match up well to competitors and it no longer owes money to the U.S. government. But it's no surprise many people saw this as some kind of attempted inception on Obama's behalf: These "Imported from Detroit" ads are at heart political more than commercial, and like many effective political ads, they're trying to manufacture sentiment beyond what reality can support.
Americans aren't great at geography, something the "Imported from Detroit" ads thrives upon. Let's talk about things exported from Detroit, like Chrysler itself, which moved its headquarters from the Detroit enclave of Highland Park to Auburn Hills, Mich., in 1992. Or last year's Super Bowl spokesman Eminem, whose life story revolves around Detroit's border at 8 Mile Road but whose current address is 20 miles north. Chrysler has one assembly plant in Detroit proper, two more in the suburbs, one each in Ohio and Illinois, two in Canada and two in Mexico. The Dodge Challenger glimpsed in the ad is built in Canada with a Mexican-assembled V8 and a transmission from Indiana. The company's cash is counted in Italy by Fiat, and its chief executive -- who once told a union chief that workers needed to embrace "a culture of poverty" -- resides in Switzerland for tax reasons.
It's one thing for any corporation to trumpet accomplishments; quite another to posit itself as the herald of a new morning in America. The sadder, harsher truth is that these pep rallies do much for Chrysler but little to abate Detroit's everyday horrors. If only the city called Detroit could metamorph as adroitly as Chrysler's concept of "Detroit."
That sentimentality for a not-quite-real place could be Chrysler's biggest accomplishment since the bankruptcy. "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," Eastwood says, and when you hear that ancient voice you can't help but feel better, more hopeful, for a few moments, at least until the next ad comes on.