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Imported from Detroit: Chrysler embraces its heritage in Superbowl ad

Chrysler just put Detroit back on the map.

In a two-minute tour de force, the automaker championed the city with an ad that in one day has amassed over 9,800 comments on Youtube and 183,000 shares on Facebook.

The imagery is cold. A bleak sky, highways and factories fly by as we approach a city. Industrial architecture shows through the empty windows of skeleton facades. The Fist of a Champion suspended in air, punching through to the staggering weight of Diego Rivera’s murals on industry. An American flag blowing in a wintry wind reminds us of “generations of know-how” before the graceful figure of US National Figure Skating Gold medalist Alissa Czisny cuts ice. Glimpses of the Spirit of Detroit looking like Atlas, his powerful arm clutching a gilt bronze sphere.

Throughout, a low ominous drone gradually introduces a cadence—guitar and drums—patiently hammering out rhythm. When the choir builds to a climax triumph and defiance are in the air.

Amidst a Superbowl ad lineup that included Justin Bieber replacing Ozzy Osbourne, Pepsi cans being launched into crotches, and a fake baby being smashed into a window, the honesty of the Detroit spot was stirring. And people responded. From YouTube:

“This commercial is so AMERICAN … Every city in the USA has a good and a bad past….That’s what joins us as humans and Americans!!!! I love it for what I felt as I watched it…. I felt like I‘ve been there and survived too. Thanks Chrysler…”

“Chrysler’s heritage – you know if you’re older than an elementary school student – is pretty impressive – as are the first reports about their new cars.  GO CHRYSLER!”

“MUST…..GO….BUY…….CHRYS­LER!!!

“Wow, this is the first ad that actually made me want to buy a car.”

Why does the ad work so well? Certainly there’s the obvious—the rousing metaphor of Detroit as the Phoenix, summoning itself to rise from the ashes. That’s easy.

But what I think we really loved about it was its veracity. Seldom do brands embrace everything they are as fully as Chrysler did on Sunday.

The narration is absolutely unapologetic: “We’re from America. But this isn’t New York City. Or the Windy City. Or Sin City. And we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.” Chrysler’s not shying away from grit. And inherent in all the imagery of sculptures and the forges of industry is a recognition that it’s not supposed to be easy—nothing worth doing is. Jay-Z wishes Brooklyn was this gritty.

It may be that I was stirred because I owe my upbringing in Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Chile to the hard work my father has put in at Chrysler over thirty-five years. It may be that I can remember watching Dodge Vipers race Coast Guard F-16s, Top Gun-style, at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan as a kid. Or that I spent a year in Michigan before graduating from high school and saw the ironwork grit of Detroit first hand.

But I’d prefer to think that what stirred me appeals to all of us. The Chrysler ad challenges us to stand up for an underdog just beginning to dust itself off for another round. Our underdog. A city that arguably built a nation’s entire middle-class. And in the clarity of its self-portrayal lies something we seldom see from companies: unrepentant mettle. Chrysler isn’t hiding behind anything. This time, honesty was the way to go.

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