How Alfa Romeo Vanished From the U.S., Only to Return as One of 2017’s Biggest Super Bowl Advertisers

A fast, stylish and troubled nameplate makes a play for American drivers

Fiat Chrysler’s decision to run three Super Bowl ads—and devote all of them to Alfa Romeo—makes it clear the automaker has gotten serious about promoting its legendary Italian brand.

Make that its legendarily troubled Italian brand.

The exotic stepchild of Fiat Chrysler Group, which includes Jeep, Dodge, and RAM truck, Alfa Romeo is in the midst of a re-launch that’s reportedly costing Chrysler $2.7 billion.

CEO Sergio Marchionne has toggled with various plans to turn Alfa Romeo around since he took the helm of Fiat Chrysler in 2004. Each had more or less the same goal: moving the nameplate into a position to go head-to-head with marquee German brands like Mercedes, BMW and Audi.

But for all of Marchionne’s skill as an executive—this is the man who pulled Chrysler out of bankruptcy in 2009—Alfa Romeo has remained stubbornly resistant to profits. The brand remained unprofitable for the first decade of Marchionne’s tenure, and it’s unprofitable still. A mere 516 Alfa Romeos were sold in the U.S. last year, and sales were off by 22 percent.

Hopes rose in 2014, when the 4C Spider finally appeared in the U.S. after repeated delays. But a zippy two-seater that starts at $65,900 isn’t going to deliver the volume that Fiat Chrysler is looking for.

That’s where the Giulia (a midsize sedan) and the Stelvio (a premium mid-size SUV) come in. The new vehicles appeared in the U.S. late last year and are far more likely to appeal to American drivers—and they’re likely Fiat Chrysler’s impetus for a big marketing buy.

Kicking off the Super Bowl spots is “Riding Dragons” (below), which promises the chance to “ride on the backs of dragons” in a “flying car.” Produced by Art Machine, the spot is heavy on shots of the amazing Alfa Romeo machines of yesteryear, and also features footage taken from the nameplate’s glory days on the track. (The cars have a long and proud history of racing victories, including 17 European and five world championships, 10 Targe Florios and 11 Mille Miglias, plus four wins at Le Mans—and that’s just the abridged list.)

Fiat Chrysler hones its message with “Dear Predictable.” Created by The Richards Group, the spot touts the Giulia sedan specifically, and features a Dear John letter narrated by a woman also named Giulia, who bids goodbye to “predictable” in favor of a “permanent escape from monotony.”

The Doner-produced spot “Mozzafiato” introduces American viewers to the word Mozzafiato, which means “to take one’s breath away” with appearance, presence and power—these things apparently all yours with the purchase of this luxury car.

The spots serve up lush and steaming visuals of both Italy and Alfa Romeos. The cars area always red, ripping down winding roads to the engine’s roar. Peppered into the footage are scenes of gondolas gliding along canals, verdant countryside and, of course, beautiful young women. Though American buyers are the target here, Alfa Romeo clearly hopes to lure them with the car’s rich Italian heritage.

History of the brand

Alfa Romeo was born on the outskirts of Milan in 1910 after an Italian aristocrat named Ugo Stella bought up the shares of Società Italiana Automobili Darraq, a French automaker with a production plant in Italy. Ugo’s new company was called Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or ALFA. From the beginning, the cars were renowned for combining high performance with Italian styling, which became especially sexy after World War II.

“Alfa Romeo is a particular way of living, of experiencing an automobile,” head of design Orazio Satta Puliga said in 1946. “We are in the realm of sensations, passions, things that have more to do with the heart than with the head.”

But that ethos could also describe the brand’s problems. While Americans have been taught to covet performance-luxury cars from Germany, the U.S. market never really understood Alfa Romeo—at least not enough to buy the cars in significant numbers. After years of government ownership, the brand became part of Fiat Group in 1986 but, citing heavy losses, withdrew from the U.S. market in 1995.

Now that Alfa Romeo is back—with several model choices and and a number of new showrooms—time will tell if the nameplate’s renaissance is finally nigh.