As politicians debate the fate of the nation, the rest of us struggle with deep political, economic and social divides. Three Public Insight Network reporters take to the virtual road to ask folks what they still expect from America and from each other.
Two minutes of sobriety may have been the real surprise winner on a Super Bowl Sunday that was otherwise exactly what we have come to expect: a glitzy half-time show and lots of silly, cheeky ads. Then, just as the nation settled in for an exciting second half of football, it suddenly paused and held its collective breath.
If you haven’t seen the “Halftime in America” ad from Chrysler (aka the Clint Eastwood ad), take a moment to watch it below. It’s been the most talked-about commercial of the game. But most of the Monday morning quarterbacking has focused on unraveling some hidden political agenda.
My interest is different. Unlike most Super Bowl commercials, this one seemed to try to capture a particular moment in America – something we’ve been calling “the American now.” But does it succeed? And if so, why? I put those questions to 40 sources from the Public Insight Network who list “advertising” as an expertise. Here’s some of what we heard… 1. It was arresting “It starts with knowing what your audience might be thinking, right now, and speaking directly to them,” said Kathy Huston, senior vice president for Tad Ware & Company, a Minneapolis ad agency. “By starting with ‘It’s halftime…’ it seems immediate, and in real time. The start, with long shadows and darkness, has suspense that draws you in.”
Among those drawn in was Robert Holland, an advertising photographer in Stuart, Fla., who told us: “I was at a Super Bowl party getting ready to leave at half time — and that ad stopped me cold in my tracks. It was the voice, then the visuals, then the words that I found captivating — in that order.”
2. It meets us where we’re at But beyond recognizing that we’re all watching a football game, the ad evokes this American “moment” of transition that so many (including myself and my fellow writers on this website) are trying to define. Here’s how Tera Arthur, an independent advertising consultant in Kettering, Ohio, described it:
This ad wouldn’t have worked pre-2001 (when patriotism was out of fashion) or pre-2007 (when we all wanted to believe that the wild upward trajectory of the stock market and our property values would go on forever). And in 2010, we didn’t yet want to accept that there was a new normal. So, it is very much an ad made for the 2012 audience — a little older, a little wiser, but tougher than ever — just like our image of Clint.
And Huston saw it validating our collective anxiety:
Throughout it speaks in terms of “we” and expresses a lot of what the audience would say are “truths” about how people are feeling about where the economy and our country have been the past few years. Language like, “We’re all scared.” It taps into America’s insecurity…are we still the great power we were? Is our economic power being eclipsed? Do we still have what the Greatest Generation had? Are we out of this recession yet?
Erin Chipman, a public relations account executive in St. Paul, Minn., said, “We see ourselves in the shots of people doing ordinary things, getting ready for another day, combined with the average families in the still black and white shots.” It feels nice to have a big company acknowledge our feelings, pointed out Susan Kirkland, an advertising designer in Burnsville, N.C. “That’s the first rule of good customer service: always validate your customer’s feelings FIRST because that validation costs the company nothing and provides emotional relief for the customer.” 3. It tells it like it is (or is perceived to be)
Rather than turn our collective worries into an absurdest apocalypse (as Sunday’s Chevy commercial did) that sets people apart, the Chrysler ad join us in our discomfort. Julie Lafitte, who works at an advertising agency in Colorado, is one of many experts we heard from who seized on the word “scared:”
Everyone knows someone who’s out of work or is unemployed themselves, so everyone can relate to the characters in the ad. The wording acknowledges “we’re all scared because this isn’t a game” — something government press releases try to pretend isn’t true, but everyone knows is. This honesty establishes the narrator as the sort who will give it to you straight and get to work on fixing it. This honesty is comforting and creates trust.
And Chrysler keeps that trust alive by not peppering the ad with products (few cars are visible) or logos (we don’t see the word Chrysler until the last moment) that could spoil that aura of sincerity. That works for Nicole Tyrrell, an advertising account planner from Burnsville, Minn.:
It lacks a focus on the product and focuses more on the heart strings of consumer — it isn’t sugar coating our current economic status, it isn’t using sex to sell — it instead is telling you a truth and showing how the brand that was almost out [of business] can make a comeback and thrive. We all like comeback stories and want to believe in them. We truly want to believe that we will come out of whatever situation we are in right now victoriously.
4. It follows a complete narrative By buying a two-minute slot (which, analysts say, must have cost Chrysler more than $10 million), the ad creators had time to let the story unfold. That made all the difference, according to Jamie Michelson, President of SMZ, an advertising firm in Troy, Mich.:
I just re-read Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” and he talks about the power of stories – context enriched by emotion. Where other SuperBowl spots are devoid of a story and instead rely on a gimmick or a gag, Chrysler comes roaring out of halftime telling a story about rooting for the underdog. Ourselves. Our country.
Here’s how Kathy Huston described the story arc after those first suspenseful shadows:
It moves to personal imagery: the front porch, getting ready for work…things we can all relate to, but there is an unrest. The shot of NYC invokes 9/11….
From there it hits on the discord, the quick [cable news] screen shot [evokes] the negativity and harsh opinions people are bombarded with every day in their media consumption, from traditional news to Twitter….
But, then it circles around to pride. The use of Detroit is great…it goes to our manufacturing core, our industrial heritage. And as the commercial goes on, it’s downright patriotic. It’s decent. And it’s hopeful…the second half can still be won!
Julie Lafitte points out the music in the ad takes a journey of its own, starting in a minor key and ending in a major one, “subconsciously causing the viewer to think the message is positive.” And Robert Holland, the photographer, calls the progression of images “not-too-perfect, edgy, dramatic and moody….a good editor or art director can pick the right frames to convey something that is more than the sum of the images shot.” He goes on:
The first part of the piece is almost cryptic - with all the images silhouettes and not very distinct. As it continues, things become more revealed and recognizable - including the narrator at the end.
[It is] a rare product that hit on all counts so effectively that it left people in awe, asking questions and discussing. It made the leap from ad to culture.
5. It connects emotion to the brand Evoking emotion and telling a good story are fine, but in the end, people have to remember your name. While there is not universal agreement about this, Bryan Del Monte, president of Del Monte Agency in Minnetonka, Minn., thinks Chrysler succeeds on that count:
They tied the anger, angst, anxiety, and fear of the body politic to what Chrysler “felt” from two years ago, and their “road back” to greatness. That narrative was powerful. If the goal of the ad is to tie emotion to the brand – they did that…and quite well I might add.
Bottom line – a vast majority of Americans believe at an instinctive level (I know I do) – it IS half-time in America. The outcome is not decided. Our fate is not cast. There is the potential for a better tomorrow. People are starved for that message – so when a commercial speaks to people at such a gut instinct level, people listen.
Of course, the Oscar-winning elephant in the room is the commercial’s spokesman. As Brian Murray, an advertising copywriter from Durham, N.C., told us:
Why did people find [the ad] so captivating? Clint Eastwood.
When you hear him, you don’t just hear words. You hear Outlaw Josey Wales, Dirty Harry, Walt Kowalski and William Munny. You hear the man that created “Million Dollar Baby,” “Unforgiven” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”
This is not a man speaking. This is an icon.
Indeed, part of the ad’s “arresting” nature comes from the gradual recognition that Eastwood is the man in the shadows. And by the time we realize it, we can’t stop listening. Eastwood can say “We’re all scared…” without sounding pathetic or condescending. Bryan Del Monte called the casting “brilliant”:
There are very few “man’s men” left as characters who can deliver the “Win one for the Gipper” type speech and be believable….If some pinhead noodle character or some geeky wonk character have delivered it – it would have been a complete disaster. I suspect they chose Eastwood because the line of “and when we do, they’re going to hear the roar of our engines…” That could only be delivered convincingly from someone who physically looks like they’ve been through “hell and back” and someone who has a reputation of being genuine.
And to Erin Chipman, he “immediately evokes a feeling of tough, hard-working, blue collar Americans. His voice over the imagery of the front porch, the skyline of a great city, the United States flag, all make us feel a bit more American.” 7. It’s ambiguously political…especially in an election year As Bryan Del Monte put it: “In short, this commercial is probably the best political message of unity I’ve seen since [Hal] Riney did Reagan’s ads.” The ad clearly echoes the “It’s Morning In America” ad that made the case for re-electing President Ronald Reagan in 1984. But “it’s halftime” is not nearly as rosy a message. So does the ad imply the passing of Reagan’s torch to President Obama Reagan’s, or is it making the case that we need a new “coach” if we want to have any hope of winning the game? Keeping with its goal of honoring our collective history, the ad evokes both 9/11 (with an image of firefighters that some of our experts found cliche) and the Wisconsin labor protests (by using images of Madison…albeit somewhat modified). It features decimated urban housing and towering corporate office buildings. It can’t help but hint at the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry while also sounding conservative themes of hard work, self-reliance and national exceptionalism. The back-and-forth over whether the ad is meant to be a “thank you note” or a “warning shot” to the White House will continue…mostly because, in an election year, everything becomes political for the sake of conversation. Chrysler probably doesn’t mind the extra attention (and airplay).
But…will it sell cars?
A few of our advertising experts were quick to point out that everything that makes the ad remarkable may not actually do what car commercials are supposed to do: sell cars. Gregory Bruce, a producer and copywriter from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. has created TV and radio commercials for Chrysler dealers. He called this the “wrong kind of advertising”:
We as an advertising community are not required to make public statements about the “State Of The Union” or about the “State Of The American Mind Set.” We as advertisers are here to do one thing and one thing only. Sell our product….If they wanted to make a PSA they should have never shown any product and never tagged it with their corporate name.
Julie Lafitte agreed:
I would think the demographic watching it live included a lot of people who might be planning to buy a car — but I’m not sure any of them are planning to buy a NEW car,” she says. “It’s kind of a disconnect to show sad-looking, down-on-their-luck folks in an ad for new cars. I’m not sure that’s really the image they want to convey.
And what about that metaphor? Finally, a word about the “Halftime in America” metaphor. Steve Olshansky, senior copywriter at Alpha Marketing in Raleigh, N.C., asks this question: “There has to be an opposing team. A loser. A Tom Brady. Who loses if America and its Chrysler plants win?” The problem goes deeper than that for one New York creative director who asked not to be named. (The ad business can be, after all, as competitive as pro football.)
I also think the half-time conceit is a big stretch. If this is half-time in America then regardless of what happens henceforth this game of ours is half over. As a copywriter, I’ve been in the position of trying to make a concept — one that everybody’s excited by — work, but at some point you realize it just doesn’t, that you’re pushing it; that’s what I’m recognizing here.
Finally, I’ve never been a fan of Patriot Act advertising: that which makes an appeal to an idealized image of America and Americans, suggesting that if you really love your country you’ll buy our beer, watch our news network, drive our car. Ads for Ford, Chevy and other cars have been quite affecting over the years pushing patriotism. I just don’t buy it.
All sources in this story are part of the Public Insight Network. You can be part of the network by sharing the areas of your expertise. Journalists from American Public Media and our partner newsrooms may contact you with questions to add depth and insight to the news.