“Imported from Detroit”: Selling the Country and Cars

Commercials embody more than product placement and promotion. They embody a certain cultural collectivism. We laugh and cry along great distances in unison at 30-second spots designed to elicit the most visceral emotions to achieve a solitary goal – sell. This year’s Super Bowl Sunday was replete with a variety of commercials tugging on innumerable cultural references; however, one in particular employed an oft-ignored allegory for American patriotism with bona fide success.

The two-minute Chrysler advertisement that aired during the game’s third quarter may have been neither the most hilarious of the night’s commercials nor the most spectacular; but, from its reception on the blogosphere and in print, it may have been one of the most memorable.  From black, the voiceover begins: “I got a question for ya’”.  The gritty, raspy voice is soon coupled with even grittier and untreated establishing shots of Detroit. Even after the new Chrysler 200 makes its conspicuous appearance, it’s hard not to recognize the true star of the commercial.

Madison Avenue has long used images of American grandeur and patriotism to sell; and, Wieden+Kennedy, the agency behind Chrysler’s newest ad, is no exception. But, there’s certainly a lack of red, white and blue in the rather gray and dreary spot. Chrysler substitutes the ostensible, marked and banal symbols of American patriotism with one possessing an ineffable puissance; a symbol for America underneath Chrysler’s feet — literally.

Chrysler may be actually headquartered 25 miles north of Detroit proper; and, it may now be controlled by the Italian automaker Fiat; but, with two minutes of charged imagery, Chrysler’s resolutely proclaims its Detroit-ness — its Americanness. While the commercial is more befitting of an advert for Detroit’s visitor and convention bureau, each frame, from the famed Fox Theatre to the solitary burnt out wall of a once-erected building, represents the ingenuity and perseverance the “American Dream”.  And, while the “American Dream” is one of mythicism, it arguably seems to manifest itself tangibly in the 138 square miles of Detroit.

The commercial continues: “Now, we’re from America; but, this isn’t New York City. Or the Windy City, nor Sin City.  And, we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.” At which point, the obligatory Super Bowl celebrity appearance&em;aptly, Eminem&em;comes into play: “This is the Motor City.  And, this is what we do.” But, it’s more than Motown that stands triumphantly at the end of the commercial; Chrysler isn’t merely showcasing its downtrodden hometown in its glory — Chrysler’s showcasing the glory of a downtrodden American industry arguably closer to the American psyche than any other.

Chrysler’s brazen use of Detroit and patriotic iconography has not gone without criticism. Republican congressman Dennis Ross even tweeted after the commercial: “Imported from Detroit…Borrowed from China.” Others criticized Chrysler’s spending of $2.5 million for the ad, particularly because of its outstanding government loans.  Albeit a hefty price tag for a car commercial selling a city more so than a vehicle,  Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” commercial struck a chord across the country for its frank and gritty depiction of American patriotism, devoid of disingenuous flag waving or any “Made in the USA” moniker.