Everybody loves a comeback, right?
Well, not quite everybody. The morning after Chrysler ran a Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood, placing its brand at the heart of Detroit’s remarkable turnaround story, Karl Rove unloaded both barrels on Fox News.
Chrysler, he claimed, was acting as a surreptitious SuperPac, inserting pro-Obama messages into its ad campaign:
I was, frankly, offended by it. The leadership of auto companies feel they need to do something to repay their political patronage. It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.
By the end of the day Monday, Eastwood himself – a longtime Republican — felt obliged to provide a statement to Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor” disclaiming any partisan intent:
I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK. If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it.
A few observations:
1. Of course it’s political: U.S. taxpayers invested $12.5 billion to rescue Chrysler, and another $72.5 billion to save GM and related finance and supplier companies. (We got most of it back already, and may get even more, depending on future performance of GM stock.) When the topic comes up during a TV show watched by more than 100 million people – a rare moment of common attention in a fractured media universe – it’s no surprise the discussion quickly turns political. Why shouldn’t it?
Rove, who has spent his entire life working in politics, tries here to make the term a dirty word, awash in “minions,” “patronage” and other signifiers of nasty, partisan self-dealing. But “politics” also means the ongoing contest over distribution of power, money and resources. Most of the time, especially when business decisions are involved, all the important stuff gets talked about behind closed doors.
In this case, with so much public money at stake, an effort by a government-supported car company to sell cars inevitably becomes a discussion about whether taxpayers should have a role in keeping car companies in business. I’m a former UAW staffer and still a UAW member, so it’s no surprise I think the answer is a resounding yes. But it doesn’t offend me that some people think otherwise.
2. Mrs. Rove didn’t raise no fool: Rove, of course, has no interest in a theoretical discussion about the proper role of government in private industry. He runs American Crossroads –a real SuperPac, not an imagined one – and he’s trying to win an election.
For all the Republican bluster about Obama’s electoral weakness, it won’t be so easy to beat a guy who saved in the neighborhood of a million jobs in the industrial Midwest –one of the neighborhoods in which U.S. presidential elections are usually decided.
Rove didn’t have such an easy time of it 2004, either, when he was running George Bush’s re-election campaign. Bush, a former National Guardsman with a habit of not showing up for his assignments, was running a disastrously mismanaged war in Iraq; his opponent, John Kerry, was a decorated war hero.
The GOP solution – outsourced to a shadowy PAC – was to attack Kerry’s perceived strength with the scurrilous Swift Boat ads, suggesting Kerry didn’t really earn his medals in Vietnam. (The paid media was backed up by an equally scurrilous earned media appearance from Bob Dole – one of the lower moments in his long career as a Republican attack dog.)
Saving the American auto industry, and putting real-live job creators in a position to increase sales, hiring, profits and U.S. investment is an indisputable success story for the Obama administration. Rove isn’t just reacting to a single commercial which annoys him; he’s laying the groundwork for a narrative which turns this success into a failure, replacing an optimistic scenario of new jobs and investment with a dark, corrupt tale of “Chicago-style politics” and “political patronage.”
3. That dog won’t hunt: It’s one thing to use selective video editing, not to mention outright lies, to muddy up people’s memories about what happened decades ago in a faraway jungle. In the case of Chrysler, however, the company has earned its first profit since 1997 and will distribute $1,500 profit-sharing checks to 26,000 people today.
No spin, no ad and no attack dog will convince anybody those checks aren’t real. The even larger profit-sharing checks that GM will distribute to an even larger number of people later this year will be just as real. Banks will cash them, workers will spend them, and merchants will gladly accept the proceeds.
(Memo to Newt: Obama is already the paycheck president. When you figure in the taxes paid on auto wages and bonuses, as opposed to the food stamps and unemployment benefits that would have been paid by Uncle Sam if GM and/or Chrysler had gone under, the cost/benefit calculus of the auto rescue is much clearer – and much more favorable to the U.S. Treasury.)
4. The Eastwood ad is helping the company sell cars: Rove knows full well that the White House has better things to do than spend its time scripting and directing Chrysler advertisements. What really happened is that Chrysler and its ad team came up with the Eastwood spot as a way to extend last year’s successful “Imported in Detroit” ad, which featured Eminem driving a Chrysler 200.
My first reaction to this year’s version was not so different from Karl Rove’s: Looks like a nice message for Obama, but how does it sell any cars? The 2011 Eminem ad showed a high-octane celebrity behind the wheel of a Chrysler vehicle; in the 2012 update, you hardly see any vehicles at all, and when you do, Eastwood is nowhere near them.
I take the old-fashioned view that product ads should feature the product as much as possible. This comic Chevy Camaro spot, also on air during the Super Bowl, is a good example: It had a shiny yellow model of car on the screen for nearly the entire 30-second spot.
Turns out Karl and I were both wrong. The Eastwood ad driving traffic to Chrysler, just like it’s supposed to. Not only that, by making the ad a topic of controversy for days afterward, Rove is helping the company even more. From yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (sub):
Auto-shopping website Edmunds.com said it saw a 27% jump in consumers looking for information about Chrysler after the ad aired. The ongoing debate seems to have helped keep that momentum going. Edmunds.com said Tuesday’s traffic for the auto maker is showing a 23% increase, down slightly from Monday, but higher than all but two of the other auto brands that appeared in the game.
“Chrysler and its dealers have to be in heaven right now,” said John Durham, advertising professor at the University of San Francisco. “The shelf life of this ad has been significantly extended.” Super Bowl buzz “typically dies out shortly after the game.”
Nice work, Turd Blossom!
By the way, Chrysler sales were up 12% in 2011 over 2010, Dodge/Ram sales up 18% and Jeep sales up 44%. Just a thought, but it could be that the sales team in Auburn Hills knows exactly what they’re doing – and it has do with cars, not politics.