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Why Chrysler's 'Imported from Detroit' ad is a savvy move

Why Chrysler's 'Imported from Detroit' ad is a savvy move

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Chrysler ran a high-profile advertisement during the Super Bowl that finished with the tagline, "Imported from Detroit." Critics say the company has no right to use its beleaguered hometown for credibility. Here's why that's wrong.

Who doesn't love the Great American City?

Detroit, Mich. is one of them. It's a grand old town that's seen harder times than most, for myriad reasons: white flight and suburbanization; corruption; crime; and a once-robust economy that placed its bets exclusively on an industry -- manufacturing -- that spent 50 years in decline as the U.S. economy globalized.

We've previously discussed here on SmartPlanet how the Rust Belt is moving to reinvent itself as a center for manufacturing clean technology and big infrastructure, so I won't go into that here. (Simply, it had to die before it could be reborn. Like Apple. Or Detroit.)

So it's no surprise, then, that Chrysler -- a company that itself had to die to be reborn, filing for bankruptcy, handing over the reins to the Italians at Fiat, closing a number of factories and shedding most of its previous products -- went for the jugular on Super Bowl Sunday by airing a two-minute advertisement introducing its new 200 model as a symbol of a city that's hit rock bottom and is only looking up.

Here's the spot:

(Gotta love that Art Deco architecture, no?)

Immediate reaction to the ad, as judged via Twitter and initial news stories, was positive: viewers lauded Chrysler for sticking to its guns, using a credible cameo (rapper and Detroit native Eminem) and using its "hard times" reputation as a counterpoint to the appearance of sleek, nighttime luxury of the $20,000 vehicle itself.

But after a few days, the backlash began. Chrysler, after all, has long been mis-managed, threw good (taxpayer) money after bad and is responsible for many of the lost jobs in the greater Detroit metropolitan area.

Simply, it was a kick of sand in the face that Chrysler would spend upwards of $9 million for a one-off ad spot -- one that used its beleaguered hometown as the basis for its credibility -- when it was reeling economically and taking America down with it.

Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein put it best, calling the spot "deplorable":

There's a lot to dislike here: the fact that a major bailout recipient is dishing beaucoup bucks for a one-off ad to boost its image; the cynical racism (or at least colonialism) of positioning Chrysler as a tough, gritty, 8 Mile-style brand that's perfect for what marketers call the "urban core" demographic; and using Detroit poverty porn to hawk your product while simultaneously trying to deride the media's recent Detroit poverty porn.

[...]

But most appalling is the idea that Chrysler is one of the great things about gritty Detroit and America, when in fact it's one of the corporate locusts that choked the city and nation purple with its credit-backed gobbling of skilled labor and its excretion of abandoned worker plants.

You can read his full screed here.

I usually agree with the staff of Mother Jones; they're a sharp group of folks who cover the policy intricacies of many of the subjects we write about here on SmartPlanet. But I can't help but adamantly disagree with this and other posts like it.

The points of Weinstein's piece are accurate: Chrysler is indeed responsible for the loss of thousands of jobs and the shuttering of plants across the Midwest, and has certainly not been financially successful -- hell, or even break even, for that matter -- in recent years. Its zombie march resulted in a lot of extended pain for the country.

But to fault a company for trying to get back on its feet, well, that's just unacceptable in my book. There is simply no way Chrysler could succeed unless it closed its many failing businesses, significantly reduced payroll and in a nutshell, started over. It hurts, it's not fair, but it's necessary for Chrysler to rebound.

Head to Chrysler's new website. Take a look. You won't recognize much: the company only offers three models: the new 200, the larger 300 and the Town & Country minivan. (On the last one; some habits die hard.) Aside from the coming introduction of the subcompact 500 -- the Fiat "Cinquecento," that is -- that's it.

It's pretty clear that Chrysler didn't just have to plug the leaks in 2010; it had to scuttle the ship and build a newer, smaller, more nimble one.

You may fault the company for getting to this point; it's hard not to. But to criticize the company for an apparently wildly successful advertisement during the most-watched television program of the year is to deny it the ability to pick itself up again.

The old adage goes: "You've got to spend money to make money." That was, perhaps, the best $9 million Chrysler has ever spent -- for itself and the city of Detroit.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure