Obama and Chrysler: One (Muddied) Message Selling Detroit's Resurgence

Last Updated Jul 5, 2011 3:44 PM EDT

Downtown Detroit: still gritty
Chrysler and the Obama Administration are united on the common message of rebuilding America's opinion of Detroit while taking some of the credit for the Big Three's resurrection. Obama, who visited a Chrysler Jeep factory on a campaign swing in Toledo earlier this month and proclaimed "the best cars in the world are built right here in the U.S. of A," is echoing Chrysler's own stance in its ubiquitous "Imported From Detroit" commercials.

It's unclear if this dog will hunt nationwide. Detroit is, after all, still a mess -- it's only the auto companies that can claim to have recovered. Americans are still jaundiced about the auto bailout, and images of Detroit's mean streets, tied to blue-collar workers and Motor City rock and roll, are probably not the best way to sell Chrysler's luxury cars. And the appeal to patriotism gets a bit complicated when the company's owners are Italian.

A targeted campaign
For Obama to succeed, not everybody has to get the message. Ron Klain, a former White House senior adviser on the Recovery Act, urged the President to take a bailout "victory lap" in the Rust Belt to ensure that auto-making swing states Michigan, Indiana and Ohio are in his camp for 2012. And he urged Obama to

tell the story with fewer numbers and more emotion; less prose and more poetry.
In fact, Klain wants people in the auto communities to tell their own grassroots recovery stories with "viral videos." But that's exactly what Chrysler does in the "Imported From Detroit" commercials, which puts a stable of famous Detroiters -- Eminem, Lions football player Ndamukong Suh, rock-loving fashion designer John Varvatos (seen buying Iggy Pop vinyl) -- behind the wheel of Chryslers driving past a collage of happy and not-so-happy Detroit landmarks.

Made in the Motor City
The ads are admirable in their attempt to reclaim Detroit-made pride from the trash heap. Chrysler isn't hiding from its Motor City roots -- it's embracing them. Unfortunately, Detroit means many things to many people across the country. To some it's a symbol of urban decay they'd rather not think about. To others it's where the feds went to pour public money down a rathole. Here's the most striking commercial, with Eminem, which played during the Super Bowl:
The commercial is really narration-heavy, feeding into a distrust of media and an appeal to blue-collar pride:

What does a town that's been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I'll tell you, more than most. You see, it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel. The hard work, conviction and the know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us -- that's who we are, that's our story. It's probably not the one you've been reading in the papers, the one written by folks who've never even been here and don't know what we're capable of. Because when it comes to luxury, it's as much about where it's from as who it's for.
Chrysler had me with the "hottest fires" thing, but lost its grip when it started talking about "the finer things in life." The "Detroit knows" message would probably work better to sell Jeeps and Dodge Ram trucks; transferring it to luxury cars like the $41,000 all-wheel-drive 300C muddies the waters too much. Some of the other ads simplify the message -- it takes a tough city to make tough cars -- and work better for me.

Detroit is back
Obama's message, meanwhile, got a rousing welcome in Toledo. And it plays well all over the industrial Midwest, especially compared to Mitt Romney having to defend his 2008 stance to let Detroit fail. It may not work in states without auto plants, but he doesn't deliver it there. Obama's claim boils down to this -- the $60 billion investment in General Motors and Chrysler saved a million jobs, and put 55,000 new people to work on assembly lines. Michigan (and Ohio and Indiana) are working again.

Detroit is back, so it's not surprising that both sitting presidents and auto companies want to get some mileage out of it.


Photo: Flickr/Don Harder