Noise, Vibrations, & Harshness: Detroit's Got Talent

According to many pundits, the big winner of the 2011 Super Bowl (damn you, Pittsburgh Steelers) was Chrysler, whose two-minute commercial featuring the rapper Eminem introduced a new marketing campaign, “Imported from Detroit.” On a day as famous for its TV commercials as it is for events on the field, this self-conscious and vaguely transgressive piece of car advertising cut through a sea of marketing fog so well, according to BrandIndex, a firm that tracks brand perceptions, that of thirty brands running ads during the Stupor Bowl, Chrysler was one of the most improved.

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Now, not everyone liked the ad, so in fairness, let me concede that it wasn’t a great Super Bowl for commercials—standing out wasn’t hard. And as far as improving brand perception, Chrysler honestly had nowhere to go but up.

That said, I think it was a pretty good ad, because I like Eminem well enough and the featured song is reasonably bumpin’, as the kids used to say. More significant, the spot did what has been an obvious play sitting out there, just waiting, for years—it took the grit, grime, and rich history of the Motor City and turned it into a selling virtue, rather than sidestepping it like a badge of shame. When life gives you lemons, they tell you to make lemonade. And when it gives you sh*t, I always say, it’s time to make sh*tade.

So burned-out neighborhoods, poor people, and foul weather are repurposed as indicia of authenticity, a retort to the sissified, affluent preening of so many car ads. It’s a gambit that works; the music business has been selling suburban white kids on the mean-street romance of the ghetto for years, and hip-hop’s most successful practitioners have become luxury-brand spokesmen.

Ironically, it took an Italian owner, Fiat, to launch an ad campaign embracing Detroit in all its funktified splendor. The campaign was undoubtedly cooked up by the creative cats at Chrysler’s agency, Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Oregon. However, once its success was established, Chrysler brand CEO Olivier François—a demonstrated risk taker back in the old country and an accomplished self-promoter—rushed in to receive credit. He let it be known that he showed up at Eminem’s manager’s house late on a Sunday night to personally close the deal. Eminem had supposedly turned down 100 deals prior to the Chrysler one, an Automotive News item related, but it failed to mention one he didn’t turn down, featuring a Claymation version of his bad self acting as a spokesman for Lipton iced tea. That ad also ran during the Super Bowl, looking plenty lame alongside Chrysler’s Detroit bombscape, and Lipton was understandably pissed—somebody forgot to tell them the Chrysler ad was coming.

My teenage son said afterward that he was not surprised to see two ads featuring Eminem, because he always thought the pint-size rapper was a king-size sellout, as well as the opposite of an outsider, with thirteen Grammy awards to his credit. And he was white to boot, which amounted to a pulled punch, since hardly anyone in Detroit is white anymore. All of which led me to diagnose in the lad a very specific form of amnesia wherein one forgets the dozens of hours his family was forced to spend listening to Marshall Mathers in the car at his request. I mean, at least, Eminem’s a real Detroiter. And Vanilla Ice he’s not.

My complaint was more technical: why, in an ad about how Detroit knows luxury, was the man driving a Chrysler 200, when he could have been behind the wheel of a 300, an indisputably more impressive car? The 200, although much improved over the Sebring it replaced, still looks as if it were penned by R. Crumb while on assignment to Fisher-Price. You wouldn’t say Chrysler 200 drivers are big pimping. Big chimping, at best.

But I think Chrysler is on to something. The problem with Detroit automakers ever since the 1970s has been that, just when they figure out they’re uncool, they’re already kind of cool again. But then they fail to realize it (because they’re so uncool) and go out and do something stupid like buy Saab. Not everyone’s grown tired of the European brands that excited their parents. But there’s a definite moment now. So over the river and through the ’hood, to Eminem’s house we go.

Illustraion: Tim Marrs

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I would think that the reason they didn't use a 300 in the commercial is that it's built in Canada (Brampton, Ontario) and was initially designed by a Canadian. To most it wouldn't have mattered but you can almost guarantee that it would have drawn out all the self appointed pundits that mistake cynicism for insight.

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