The Chrysler Commercial

The Super Bowl is a circus with several amusing sideshows, including the annual scramble to debut memorable, and sometimes controversial, television ads.  Various websites host polls to determine the best ads.  Some are even designed to be rejected by the network, so they can go viral.  Since the target audience is whooping it up at beer-soaked Super Bowl parties, the most memorable ads are often hysterically funny.

This year’s crop of Super Bowl ads was fairly weak.  My personal favorite was the delightful “Darth Vader” ad for the Volkswagen Passat, in which a little boy in a Darth Vader costume desperately tries to use the Force, and finally gets a little help from his dad.  (The actor in the Darth Vader costume is 6-year-old Max Page, who has a congenital heart defect and uses a pacemaker.)

The strangest ad was also the longest one in Super Bowl history: a 90-second Chrysler spot extolling the virtues of Detroit, and featuring rap singer Eminem.  Super Bowl ad time goes for about $3 million for a standard 30-second spot, so this ad cost about $9 million to air.  The thrust of the ad was that Detroit has been “to hell and back,” and has been toughened into a superb center for automobile production by the experience, but you needed to watch a $9 million Super Bowl ad to learn that, because news reporters “don’t know what people in Detroit are capable of.”  The ad had nothing to say about any particular model of Chrysler automobile, offering only a few quick glimpses of one zipping around the streets of Detroit.

Over at the Washington Examiner, J.P. Freire smelled a big pile of tax dollars burning: “given that the company’s CEO also announced this past week that is seeking a ‘better deal’ on government loans, it is likely that this ad had more to do with getting political support than selling cars.  Besides, is spending millions on a Super Bowl ad appropriate for a company that received a taxpayer bailout to recover from a bankruptcy?”

It turns out that Chrysler, which already soaked up a $15 billion taxpayer-funded bailout, is looking for more government cash.  CEO Sergio Marchionne calls their current interest rates “shyster rates,” and wants refinancing, plus a new $3 billion in “low-cost Energy Department retooling loans,” according to a story in the Detroit News.

Chrysler is hoping for $200 to $500 million in profits for 2011.  It would take years of energetic auto sales to make the kind of money they want to borrow from the Energy Department, and their $15 billion taxpayer bailout represented more money than the company could have made in a decade.  The company exists today because politicians decreed its survival, rescuing it from a grave dug by decades of poor management and unsustainable union demands. 

Chrysler needs political support for more subsidies far more than it needs to sell a few more cars.  They want the public to think of “investments” in a proud and determined American city, not bailouts for a failed business model.  That’s why the company spent all that money producing a 90-second campaign commercial for Detroit, instead of showing off their latest models to a vast audience of potential customers.