What Politicians Can Learn From Chrysler Ads

Feb 7, 2011 5:21pm

ABC’s Amy Walter reports:

The reason Chrysler’s two minute adSuper Bowl ad is getting so much buzz today isn’t just because it had Eminem – or iconic monuments from a once glorious downtown Detroit.  It’s because it had a story of hope and redemption:  A story that resonates just as strongly in politics as it does in product placement.

This ad isn’t just a story about the rise and fall – and hopeful rise again – of Motor City, it’s about the collapse (and hopeful rise) of a way of life in this country – an America where we built stuff instead of Googling stuff.

This ad follows in the footsteps of two other Chrysler ads that play to the idea that America is coming back – and coming back strong.  “Whatever happened to style,” asks this ad, “Wasn’t too long ago, America had it…We believe it’s time to get it back – to regain the style..the confidence.”

And, then there’s the more obvious appeal to patriot pride, with this commercial that shows “George Washington” leading his troops into battle against those blasted Red Coats behind the wheel of, what else, a Dodge Challenger.

To be sure, appealing to American’s innate sense of pride in their country is a good way to try and improve one’s image. And, Chrysler needs some help. The bailout of the auto industry remains unpopular. A USAToday/Gallup poll taken last August showed that 56 percent disapproved of government aid to U.S. automakers – while just 43 percent approved.

This isn’t Chrysler’s first time using an appeal to nationalism to try and sell cars. In this 1984 ad, then Chrysler Chairman Lee Iaccoca sounds a familiar theme. “A lot of people think that America can’t cut the mustard anymore.” But, after going through all the great offerings of the car company, Iaccoca contends “we will beat the Japanese at their own game. Quality. Hard Work. Commitment. The stuff America was made of. ”

In 1979, of course, Chrysler was also on the brink of bankruptcy and received $1.5 billion in  federally backed loans.

So, why should politicians be paying attention to these ads? Because often times, the folks in charge of selling stuff has its finger on the pulse of the American electorate better than the folks in Washington do.

There’s a reason why the President has introduced an agenda titled “Winning the Future” and Republicans are eager to discuss “American exceptionalism”: despite all the bad stuff out there, Americans want leaders who are optimistic and forward looking. Hand-wringing, finger-pointing pols never get all that far – especially those trying to capture the highest office in the land.

Last cycle, I suggested that this Dominos Pizza ad could serve as a template for the 2010 campaign. The ad featured focus group participants complaining about the poor quality of the pizza and a pledge by the president and the top brass of Dominos to do better. What was so remarkable about this ad was that instead of trying to convince a skeptical and cynical public to believe that they were serving up their best food, they admitted, without being forced to, that, well, they stunk at making pizza. But, they’d win their customers back with quality, not spin.

Voters, I noted, were a lot like those pizza consumers. They were angry, frustrated and fed up with politics as usual. The only way to break through, even as a long-time incumbent, was to meet them where they were. Don’t try and explain why Washington was working. Explain how you’ll fix it.

Today, Americans still don’t love Washington, but they do want it to work. Mostly, they want the economy – and America – to get back on its feet. They want a vision – not just vitriol. But, they don’t want a sugar-coated version either. The gritty images like we saw in Chrysler’s Super Bowl commercial worked because underneath the decay, there was hope – and beautiful art deco architecture too.

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