Céline Dion Out of Sight in Chrysler Commercials

Amid a chorus of dealer complaints that spots featuring the musical stylings of spokeswoman Céline Dion came at the expense of Chrysler’s new $35,000 crossover vehicle, Pacifica, the pop star’s physical presence has all but disappeared from Chrysler ads.

Although some spots continue to use Dion’s music, she herself is a no-show. In the first ads with the star, which launched in January, she was visible on a video screen in one model’s entertainment system and singing in the back seat of a Pacifica in another. In others, she spoke and sang. In more recent versions, such as an amended dealer group ad that broke last week, Dion and her voice are notably absent.

When Chrysler signed Dion to a massively publicized, estimated $10 million-plus sponsorship deal in November, former vp of marketing Jim Schroer said it was a pitch-perfect partnership: Dion was coming off a two-year retirement with a new album (which included the song “I Drove All Night”), and Chrysler needed a high profile for its “path to premium” positioning. But some dealers felt the Pacifica, an SUV-cum-minivan, was unique enough to stand on its own.

Indeed, the Céline-centric “Drive & Love” campaign out of Omnicom’s BBDO, Troy, Mich., Arnell Group in New York and GlobalHue in Southfield, Mich., apparently didn’t do much for the crossover car. Pacifica’s first-year sales are tracking at about 30,000 units, according to Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., half of what Chrysler was projecting. Between its March launch and May, Pacifica sold 4,800 units.

“Look, Pacifica is the best car Chrysler has ever made, but consumers don’t know what it is,” said Marc Treiber of Rallye Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in Monroe, N.Y. “They are selling image, but they didn’t sell the car.”

Chrysler dealer council chief Tom Barenboim, concurring that the campaign is controversial among dealers, said, “The direction we’ll take in the future is, you’ll see less of Céline, but you’ll hear her music.”

Said another dealer: “The [Dion] ads didn’t help. It was a music video.” He pointed out that Chrysler used a similar tactic in the mid-1990s when it hired then-unknown actor Greg Kinnear to pitch AMC’s Eagle. “He got a great career out of it. AMC went out of business,” he said.

The only Dion commercial sighting at the moment is a print ad for the Chrysler Town & Country. But the carmaker insists Dion’s disappearance from the small screen is by design.

“It was always our plan to reduce Céline Dion’s image in TV spots after the launch earlier this year and, instead, to use her music,” said Bonita Stewart, director of brand communications. “Now that we have established the connection between Céline and the Chrysler brand, the plan is to use TV creative that provides consumers with more vehicle attributes. … Highlighting such features is not Céline’s job. That’s the job of an off-camera announcer.”

Bill Morden, BBDO vice chairman and chief creative officer in Detroit, said Dion’s presence will be more tactical but that her songs will remain a unifying element in brand messages. “Her music plays very well,” he said. “So we may have her in every spot we do, vis-à-vis her music—not necessarily her physical appearance.”

Schroer resigned last month, which Chrysler said was by mutual agreement. But one source said he was fired because of the Pacifica’s less than spectacular sales, as well as Chrysler’s heavy reliance on customer incentives. In light of that, another source said, two shops favored by Schroer may be on notice as well: Arnell Group (the partnership was the brainchild of brand guru Peter Arnell, a close friend of Dion’s) and marketing services shop Fusion 5 in Westport, Conn., owned by London’s Added Value Group.

“We see no change in the very strong and productive relationship [with Arnell],” said Stewart. Fusion 5 CEO Patrick Meyer said, “We have a singular focus on … building [Chrysler’s] brands, and we are keeping our heads down and focusing on doing that.” Arnell was unavailable.

The Chrysler division spent $415 million advertising its car and truck models in 2002, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.