On Monday, responding to a barrage of criticism from conservative pundits and some football fans, Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne denied there had been any political message in the company's Super Bowl aired during Sunday's night's halftime show.
"It had zero political content," Marchionne told a Detroit radio station. "It was not meant to be any type of a political overture on our part; we are as apolitical as you can make us."
The two-minute commercial starring Clint Eastwood compared Detroit's comeback to the ongoing recovery of the American economy. Many viewers came away from Sunday's ad thinking the two-minute spot was a pro-Obama ad; others did not.
Yet at the Detroit auto show last month, it was clear that Marchionne felt indebted to the president for Chrysler's very survival. "I owe the president a lot," Marchionne said then. "The reason we are here is because he gave us the [bailout] money, right?" Marchionne was talking with a small group of reporters about Chrysler's bid for $3.5 billion in loans from the Department of Energy, as part of a program created by Congress in 2007 to help automakers retool old plants to make fuel-efficient vehicles. The loans still hadn't come through, despite consistent negotiating between Chrysler and the government. Marchionne said he hoped the process wasn't being delayed for political reasons. His comment about the president, though, came in response to a reporter's question, "Doesn't Obama owe you one?"
Nonetheless, knowing how carefully automakers ponder, weigh and debate official communications, it's hard to imagine Chrysler's top brass did not consider that its Super Bowl ad could be interpreted as a pro-Obama spot. Typically auto executives are very careful to not pick sides in political battles, for fear of alienating customers on any given side. Although they often have their own political agendas, such battles are waged with lobbyists and campaign donations, not overtly in political ads.
A spokesman for Chrysler declined to comment further on the company's commercial or Marchionne's earlier comments.
"The ad pretty clearly invokes the comeback due to the bailout, without mentioning those controversial words," said Ted Brader, a University of Michigan political science professor. "And given that message -- we made the most of the bailout and it was a success -- I did think, Huh, one could read that as a tribute to Obama's decision to bail out GM and Chrysler."
Brader said Chrysler's commercial is vaguely similar to a 1984 political ad for Ronald Reagan, "It's Morning Again in America." This year's Chrysler ad, which aired just moments after Madonna finished her halftime show, started with Eastwood's telling the audience that it's halftime and the football teams are in their locker rooms figuring out how they can win.
"It's halftime in America, too," Eastwood said, as an image showed the sun rising over a misty mountain range. The commercial continued with scenes of people waking up, getting ready for the day. "People are out of work, and they're hurting, and they're all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback."
The people of Detroit, he said, have already faced that fear. They almost lost everything. But the country pulled together and "after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one," he said. And now Detroit is back, Eastwood said.
Reagan's earlier ad also started with a sunrise, except the opening scene included a boat in a bay. Various vignettes depicted people commuting to work, moving into new homes and getting married, while a narrator talked about how much better life was in 1984 compared with in 1980, before Reagan took office. "Under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder, and stronger, and better," the narrator said. "Why would we ever want to return to where we were?"
The wounds of the automakers' collapse and subsequent bailout are still fresh in Detroit, where bewildered citizens looked on as the rest of the nation debated whether it was worthwhile to help save the industry. Michigan slipped into a recession four months before the rest of the country and suffered the hardest. Unemployment there was the highest in the nation for all of 2009, and people left the state looking for jobs. Michigan was the only state to shrink in population size from 2000 to 2010, losing 54,000 people, according to Census counts.
But now things are starting to turn around. Ford and Chrysler both posted profits for 2011, and GM is expected to do the same.
That's the message Eastwood said he was hoping to tap into with the commercial, in a bipartisan fashion: "I think " all politicians will agree with it," he told Fox News. "I thought the spirit was OK."
The commercial was vague enough to give Chrysler "plausible deniability about any political implication of the ad," Brader said. Eastwood was a good choice (although, according to the Wall Street Journal, he may have been the second choice; Al Pacino also shot a version of the ad) because people connect him with hardscrabble Westerns and tough, flawed heroes. Eastwood's background as a Republican who opposed the bailout (but favors gay marriage) makes the message even less clear.
"So, all in all, the whole thing is rather nicely ambiguous," Brader said.
Watch Sunday's Chrysler ad and the 1984 Reagan ad below: