Imported from Detroit

My favorite ad from last weekend’s Super Bowl was easily Chrysler’s two-minute defense of the Motor City.  The ad aired during the 3rd quarter of the game, generating lots of buzz afterward.

The dialogue that’s followed is often conflicted.  Was this an ad for a new car, or was it an ad for the city of Detroit?  Was it a defense of American industry?

Visually, the ad is stunning.  Tightly cropped shots show active industry, graceful old skyscrapers and works of civic art, as well as Detroiters going about their days.  As Aaron Renn notes, it is an amazing presentation of a civic brand, perhaps one of the strongest we have in the United States even despite the city’s downtrodden reputation:

What this really shows once again is the power of brand Detroit. Is there another city in America an ad like that could have been created about? Even in a radically different style, it’s hard to imagine someone using the power of a city’s brand to sell a product in that way other than perhaps a tourist town or in a totally facile way (“We brew our beer in Milwaukee”). If someone tried, it certainly wouldn’t be nearly as effective. There are lots of cities that have “been to hell and back,” but I can only think of two where you could pull off something like this: Detroit and New Orleans. Not even Chicago has the brand power to resonate like this, showing at least one way in which Detroit actually exceeds the Windy City.

In the comments, Aaron Naparstek notes the inherent contradictions between Detroit the city image and Detroit as the American auto industry:

As pure TV product the ad is phenomenal. As branding for the U.S. auto industry, however, the ad is deeply, fatally flawed. After all of what has happened these last few years, it is stunning that Detroit is choosing to brand itself in the American consciousness with a “luxury” muscle sedan that gets 21 mpg on a good day.

DC, of course, is often victim to the same phenomenon, where “Washington” means the federal government, yet it also means the city of 600,000 residents along the Potomac River.  Detroit, however, seems to embrace this particular association as one of hard work, quality, craftsmanship, and luxury – even if the actual success of the car the ad is selling remains to be seen.

Detroit IndustryDetroit Industry – CC image from Tobias Higbie on flickr

Nevertheless, the imagery is compelling.  From Joe Louis’ fist to the Spirit of Detroit to Campus Martius to Detroit Industry, the city and its residents embrace that connection and that brand – while District residents might instead talk about the difference between ‘Washington’ and ‘DC.’

3 comments to Imported from Detroit

  • Aaron’s comment is what’s flawed. That specific model gets 20 MPH in the city and 31 on the highway. That’s better than 21 “on a good day.” And a normally aspirated four-banger is not a “muscle” engine — unless it’s being compared to a bicycle.

  • Woody

    The ad was a brave move by Chrysler, considering that for many haters, Detroit = ni@@ers. To confirm this truth, check out the eruption of ugly after the ad aired that stained the threads on the right-winger blogs.

    So give Chrysler their props, they didn’t flinch from portraying the blackness of the Motor City, from Joe Lewis’ steel fist to the black choir inhabiting the luxurious Fox Theater.

    The ad climaxed powerfully with the endorsement from rapper Eminem, who the haters see as a race traitor, though others may view him as a more trustworthy example of a post-racial America than even Barack Obama.

  • Alex Block


    I did notice quite a bit of racial tension from friends who saw the ad but were unfamiliar with Detroit. I would note, however, that even amongst the quite-segregated Detroit region this wasn’t a problem – only to those who were outsiders.

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