Barbara Lippert’s Critique

For the past year or so, it seems as though Chrysler has been actively courting controversy in its ads.

Take the “Drive=Love” campaign in which one bizarro spot had a Concorde-driving mom telling her teen daughter that the family’s two kids were named for the places they were conceived. “Oh yuck, Mom!” the girl says, surely speaking for us all, as it dawns on her how baby Concorde got that moniker. (The spot was revised after numerous complaints.)

Then there was the first-ever mini van spot with kinky overtones. With both families present, a suburban-dad type asks his neighbor if he’s into “swapping.” He means the car, not the wife, ha ha ha, but the bored neighbor was all set to offer up the Mrs. Again, yuck.

In January, a Jeep commercial made hunters look like dunces out of Deliverance while showing a Mother Teresa-like Jeep driver saving deer. Word of the storyline resulted in so many complaints from hunting groups that the spot was promptly pulled. In another spot, the agency felt free to joke about the one group of people in America who are presumably unable to flood company switchboards: the Amish. (Guy in 19th-century duds is so in love with his Chrysler that he hides it in the hay barn.) The spots got attention for being just this side of tasteless.

So it’s a bit ironic that when the company launched a huge, earnest, feel-good campaign (radio, print and TV) last week on behalf of “the proud American brands of DaimlerChrysler”—Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge—and acknowledged for the first time in four years its merger with the Germans, Chrysler also engi neered its biggest ad controversy yet.

Three commercials link the two powers in terms of catchy combos, like “German/American DNA,” “American frontier spirit and a little German rocket science” and so forth. One spot, a rather abstract exploration of time and space, opens with an announcer saying, “A German named Einstein showed us the universe in a whole new light. An American named Edison turned it on. And putting American and German minds together is bringing a new level of quality to Chrysler …” Another spot, for Dodge, starts off with a black-and-white shot of the autobahn. “Germany built the first superhighway. America put them everywhere. And now that American/German affinity for things automotive is bringing a new level of quality …”

The idea makes sense. Germany is known for its superior automotive engineering, so why not talk about it? It’s not that the writing or art direction is bad, either—it’s rather sophisticated. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the whole campaign is so forced and wrong because it’s based on a huge strategic problem: It’s playing a game of Twister, tripping over itself so as not to mention the M word (Mercedes).

Obviously, Mercedes owners will not be as delighted to learn they are sharing parts with Chrysler people. So, I imagine, in an attempt to avoid showing modern German Mercedes factories, etc., the campaign goes back to earlier German breakthroughs. A rabbi from the Simon Wiesenthal Center has said the ads “whitewash history.” The autobahn and rocket science, it turns out, were developed on behalf of the Third Reich during World War II. And the use of Einstein as a German isn’t quite appropriate either, as he devised relativity theory while working in Switzerland and never set foot in Germany after 1932, when Hitler came to power.

There’s got to be something powerfully wrong headed about a strategic brief that sells us on the transportation miracles of Nazi Germany rather than mention the engineering marvels of the verboten Mercedes. The average American viewer not up on history won’t make these Nazi links, of course. But this is not a trivial mistake, nor a single spot with questionable humor. Yes, the war ended almost 60 years ago—meaning, there have been more than five dec ades of solid German-American alli ance to celebrate and from which to pull foot age and ideas for advertising.

DaimlerChrysler, like many other German companies in business at that time, has paid compensation for those who served in German labor camps in the war, and faces more litigation from Holocaust survivors. It’s hard to believe word of that never reached Auburn Hills.