With its three Super Bowl commercials, Chrysler once again logged a performance that will be talked about as inspirational and hotly debated.
The company -- now called Fiat Chrysler Automobiles -- aired a commercial for Maserati in the first quarter, Jeep during halftime and then enlisted legendary folksinger Bob Dylan to cap off its effort with an ad for the Chrysler brand with an argument for why Americans should buy American-built cars.
Ironically, the commercial comes less than two weeks since Italian automaker Fiat became the 100 percent owner of Chrysler -- a fact likely to generate lots of debate when the merit of the ad is discussed in days to come.
Nevertheless, Chrysler still employs nearly 34,000 in the U.S. and makes cars at plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
"You can't import an original, you can't fake true cool ... You can't duplicate legacy," Dylan growls in the ad that showcased Chrysler's Detroit roots. "And when it is made here, it is made with the one thing you can't import from anywhere else -- American pride. We will build your car."
Michael Bernacchi, a professor of marketing for the University of Detroit Mercy, said Chrysler is in danger of pushing a narrative that is beginning to feel rehashed given the 2011 two-minute "Imported from Detroit" Super Bowl commercial with Eminem and the "Halftime in America" Super Bowl Commercial with Clint Eastwood.
"We have seen this before, this was a reshaping of it," Bernacchi said. "What they did in two minutes, they could have done in one minute."
Detroit Three success
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors and Ford all saved at least one of their Super Bowl ads for the big game instead of releasing them in advance and all three scored big points with commercials that were at times funny and at times emotionally powerful.
Automotive companies have been among the biggest spenders during the Super Bowl in recent years and Sunday night's game was no different as each of the Detroit Three, along with Audi, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar/Land Rover, Kia, Toyota and Volkswagen, all battled for attention.
Toyota used Muppets, Volkswagen poked fun at its own German engineers, Audi had a bizarre twist on a dog ad called Doberhuahua, while Kia used a play on the movie "The Matrix" with Lawrence Fishburne to explain that Kia, contrary to perception, can make a luxury car.
The Auto Club Group -- which includes AAA Michigan -- even got into the action with a 60-second regional commercial called "Emma."
The crowded, competitive landscape makes it difficult for any automaker to stand out, but by halftime, each of the Detroit Three logged ads that were already being praised either as solid efforts or as moving stories.
Maserati to slay giants
The first commercial for Fiat Chrysler came during the first quarter in the form of a 90-second commercial that made the case that the automaker is serious about dramatically expanding the Maserati brand as it introduces its all-new Ghibli. The commercial positioned Maserati as a small brand that is now ready to slay the giants of the luxury automotive industry.
"The world is full of giants," the narrator said. "We wait until they get sleepy ... and then walk out of the shadows, quietly walk out of the dark -- and strike."
It was a bold statement for Fiat and Chrysler that reflects the company's plan to dramatically boost sales of the Italian luxury brand and re-introduce the Alfa Romeo brand in the U.S. as key pillars of its European turnaround plan. It also was a vintage ad for Olivier Francois and ad agency Weiden+Kennedy, which have earned a reputation for long, mood-setting spots that tell stories.
"Maserati was a surprise and they did reasonably well with it," Bernacchi said.
Chrysler's second ad came during halftime for the company's all-new Jeep Cherokee. The ad, called "Built Free," attempted to capture the desire for adventure that many children and adults have.
The 60-second ad for Cherokee, called "Restlessness," was created by Richards Group. It continues the all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee launch and the brand's "Built Free" advertising campaign, which launched in October 2013.
Smile for GM
General Motors, meanwhile, took a more deliberate approach to its ads with a modest goal as the company marked the first anniversary of its "Find New Roads" tagline for the brand.
Chevrolet was aiming for more of "a wink and a smile," with its ad for the heavy-duty version of the Chevrolet Silverado, said Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer for Chevrolet.
The ad showed a stud bull finding romance to the tune of Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing," as he is dropped off in a meadow filled with cows. Most of the people in the commercial are actual Silverado owners, Mahoney said last week.
"We are really striving to be as authentic as we can," Mahoney said.
Chevrolet's second ad highlighted World Cancer Day and celebrated the disease's survivors.
The spot shows a young couple driving a Silverado pickup as the song "Don't Leave," by Norwegian singer Ane Brun, plays. The female passenger, a cancer survivor, looks out the window at the sunrise, smiles and clasps the hand of her male companion. Kim Rhoades, who portrayed the cancer survivor, lost her mother to lung cancer.
No other automaker ran a commercial about pickups.
"They won the truck night easily," Bernacchi said. "I like the logic of it. I liked the strength of of it."
Ford's clear message
Ford aired back-to-back commercials called "Nearly Double," which starred comedian Rob Riggle, actor James Franco and the Ford Fusion Hybrid.
The commercials aired right before the kickoff of the Super Bowl, which is not technically counted as an "in-game" spot by USA TODAY's ad-meter. However, most marketing experts say the spot is highly coveted and is often better than a commercial near the end of the game.
Given the Seattle Seahawks 43-8 blowout over the Denver Broncos, Ford's decision to buy the spot just before the kickoff may have been the best decision of the night.
"The fact that they had everyone in place before the kickoff was significant," Bernacchi said.
Both commercials repeated the main message several times: The Ford Fusion has nearly double the fuel economy of the average car.
For Ford, it was a rare Super Bowl appearance. Ford hasn't purchased an ad during the game since 2006 other than a spot that aired for Lincoln last year.
Jim Farley, Ford's chief marketing officer, has complained in the past about the price of Super Bowl ads, which now cost more than $4 million for 30 seconds.
Farley, in an interview last week, said it is crucial to build buzz about the ads before during and after the game for the financial commitment to be worth the price.
"Our strategy is to have engagement in the whole period of time. The ad is just a piece of our strategy," Farley said.
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