Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Shtick Shift

Oh Dieter, honey, leave the door open for me. There’s so much packed into this frenetic but weirdly memorable 60-second DaimlerChrysler commercial. Let’s start with the obvious: the emergence of Dr. Z.

He is the 6-foot-4-inch, swankily mustachioed Dieter Zetsche, DaimlerChrysler’s newly installed chairman (since last January) who’s quite the imposing character, as he takes a clueless boy reporter on an automotive journey. (“Get in!” he says.)

He’s got a heavy German accent, which over the years in American pop culture has come to evoke either Freud, Nazis, Dieter from Sprockets or that platinum-haired German engineer in VW’s recent wacked-out “Pimp My Ride” spots. Here, the good doctor turned hellcat races his initiate around a test track and an off-road course, switching cars often (from a Dodge Charger R/T to a Jeep Commander to a Dodge Caliber and so on). He speaks, in rapid fire, of grand things, from the merger to Grand Cherokees and improved fuel economy, to state-of-the-art safety and security and, for all I know, the joy of allowing an unformed, questioning lad to experience the unequalled beauty of a perfectly engineered moustache.

By the very end, the obviously shaken reporter asks, “Are you a real doctor?” Z’s answer is to drive the Pacifica straight into a wall. Boom. Herr doktor (he has a Ph.D., which you can find out on the Web site) briskly checks his watch, asks, “Any more qvestions?” and scoots, leaving the traumatized kid still inside and the driver door open.

He shouts, “Auf Wiedersehen!”

Yeah, so long, and thanks for all the fish, but didn’t your mother ever tell you that abruptly crashing someone into a wall as a way to end an interview is terribly bad form? And what was the crash about? It seems to come out of nowhere, and really isn’t funny, even if presented with airbags and stereotypical German efficiency.

At the end, there’s a tagline: “Experience the best in American and German engineering and design. Get employee pricing, plus 0 percent financing on 2006 Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles. If not satisfied, simply return it within 30 days.”

That gives you an idea of the smorgasbord they’re selling.

I do like the idea of introducing old Dieter as a coherent brand icon: previous advertising was all over the place, and he’s obviously the real deal as chairman … intelligent, engaging and a real ham. He breaks a barrier in mentioning the M word—both Mercedes and merger. But way too much information about all three brands and their engineering, plus all the stuff about successfully combining American blah-blah with German yada yada, plus employee pricing, is packed into this one spot. The overload makes it impossible to come away with any single consistent message, except maybe that by the end, this mustache guy becomes an uncomfortable and off-putting caricature of an efficient German.

Whereas on the cooly designed and comprehensive Web site,, he’s made into a warm and fuzzy cartoon character as he answers “qvestions.” Whither Dr. Z?

The rest of the campaign, made of 30-second commercials, takes the doc to the field, Iacocca-style, to interact with us Americans. One spot, covering clean fuel and the environment with a bunch of kids, is cute and funny. Herr Z delivers a monologue, but the children don’t get a word of what he’s talking about—he has to point out that the setup with the muddy cars talking about clean emissions is supposed to be funny. Cut to a little girl who asks whether his ‘stache is real.

I felt the same way about the rest of the commercials. They are painful: In “Trophy,” he starts out at his desk, reading a question aloud from Kim, then goes to a soccer field and actually slams a ball with his bald head. With his sped-up movement (still in the suit and tie), he demonstrates the stow-and-go features in Kim’s Town & Country minivan. Then he finds a trophy in the rest of Kim’s storage (it’s the J.D. Power award for the highest ranked van!) and hands it to her. Dr. Z gives his all to the performance, but it’s not verking. In “Field Test,” he takes John’s question to heart: “Is there really German technology in my Chrysler 300C?”

Next thing we know, Dr. Z shows up in John’s driveway, again in the suit and tie. (Wearing a suit in these circumstances looks positively Nixonian.) But he’s not merely here to speak: he’s brought his own mechanics dolly. The next thing we know, he’s under the car, dismantling it to show the five-link rear suspension system.

Meanwhile, John, the typical American dad portrayed as a doofus in cargo shorts, is left holding his flaccid garden hose—there’s no doubt who’s the Alpha-male über-mensch here. “We invented the automobile!” Dr. Z proclaims.

It’s one thing to tout the German engineering. But why exaggerate a cultural gap by making the doc seem so briskly superior and imperious? The ads are almost forcing a great American backlash. Let’s face it: Dr. Z’s whole shtick is way too schtiff. Next time he checks his watch, how about having him announce, “Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance.”