The Super Bowl ad that changed the public's views of Chrysler

With rapper Eminem's Oscar-winning hit "Lose Yourself" thumping in the background, Chrysler's highly acclaimed commercial for its Chrysler 200 debuted on Feb. 6, 2011 during the Super Bowl, guaranteeing it one of TV's biggest audiences of the year.

At two minutes, it's practically a short-length film.  But, make no mistake: it's more than just an ad about an automobile.

Chrysler 200 Super Bowl commercial

While the theme of this riveting ad may be one of pride, it's hard to ignore the grim images of I-75 and the billowing smokestacks that convey the decline of Detroit, a once proud and great city with a strong history of industry and manufacturing that hopes for a better future.

The Chrysler Super Bowl ad was voted #1 on YouTube with over 7.5 million views.

The Christian Science Monitor said: “The two-minute Chrysler spot featuring rapper Eminem received both the highest volume and the most positive content in a stream of 250,000 tweets on Twitter, as ranked by BrandBowl2011, a social media metric created by Mullen, Radian6, and Boston.com.”

Slate’s John Swanberg said the Chrysler ad was the night’s best, saying it was “It left me pumping my fist and pledging to buy American everything.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub, who rated the ad No. 2, wrote, “An inspiring speech about American industrial know-how, along with photos of Detroit and music from Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ in the background. ... It made me want to simultaneously wave a flag, punch someone in the face and get rid of my Honda. One of the few commercials in 2011 that captured the national zeitgeist. It also reinforced something that many Americans didn’t know: Chrysler is still around. Mission accomplished, Chrysler.”

In contrast, Herb Steuver of the Washington Post wrote, “I puzzled over Chrysler’s daring yet laughably pretentious ad about a Detroit rebirth, in which Eminem drives meaningfully though the Motor City. ... It was a bold statement, delivered unconvincingly.”

"It touches your heart," Ralph Giles, Dodge division president, told the New York Times.

It's also an attention grabber.  According to the New York Times, the Chrysler 200 advert reportedly brought a 267% increase in traffic to Chrysler content on Edmunds.com after its initial airing during the Super Bowl.  In the first hours after it aired, "Chrysler 200" was the second most searched term on Google. (Edmunds also recorded a 1619% increase in site traffic for the Chrysler 200 itself. Over a week after the ad’s airing, Chrysler traffic remains 87% higher than in the weeks prior to the game — while Volkswagen, with two ads, is up just 7%, and Chevrolet, with five ads, is up 5%).

The impact continued afterwards.

As the Chrysler 200 ad takes viewers on a tour of Detroit, with shots of historic buildings amid the bleak snow, the ad's grisly voiced narrator says very matter-of-factly: "I got a question for you.  What does this city know about luxury?  What does a town that's been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?

"Well, I'll tell you:  More than most.  You see, it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.  Add hard work and conviction, and the know how that runs generations deep in every last one of us.  That's who we are.  That's our story."

Quickly, the ad's spare-no-punches attitude has touched a raw nerve.  As viewers are easily drawn by the excellent cinematic quality, there's an underlying message being conveyed: one of being proud of who you are and making the best of what life throws at you.

The narrator continues:  "Now, it's probably not the one you've been reading in the papers, the one being written by folks who've never been here, who don't know what we're capable of.  Because, when it comes to luxury, it's as much where it's from as who it's for.

"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."

Enter Eminem.  Slightly more than one minute into the ad, the Grammy Award-winning rapper and Michigan native stops the sleek jet black Chrysler 200 he is driving in front of a brightly lit marquee that reads: “Keep Detroit Beautiful.” He steps out of the car and walks inside the building.  Cut to a visual of an all-black gospel choir on stage at practice in an empty theater.  The choir stops dead in its tracks as Eminem is seen walking down the center aisle.  The ad had reached its emotional peak.

“This is the Motor City,” says Eminem, standing on the stage of downtown Detroit's ornate Fox Theatre. Then, defiantly looking straight at the camera and pointing his right index finger for emphasis, he finishes his thought:  “This is what we do.”

With those words, Eminem exits the Fox and the camera cuts to him sitting in the driver's seat of a sleek, black 2011 Chrysler 200 driving through the dark, dimly-lit streets of downtown Detroit. Soon, the ad fades to black for a second, then concludes with a simple yet very forceful slogan: "The Chrysler 200 has arrived.  Imported from Detroit."

The commercial for the Chrysler 200 may have been controversial, if not non-traditional in its content and feel.  After all, it had the visceral look and feel of a music video -- it had attitude -- and, certainly, it was devoid of the humor and stunt driving that is so prevalent in many of today's automobile ads.  Still, Chrysler spent less than $9 million to produce the two-minute commercial, and it received an overwhelmingly positive reaction since its initial showing during the 2011 Super Bowl XLV broadcast.  (It also aired during the 2011 Grammy Awards broadcast.)

In 2010, Chrysler was the only Detroit automaker that advertised during the Super Bowl broadcast.  In 2011, Chrysler and GM aired spots during the game and Ford during the pre-game show.  Nearly two weeks after its initial airing, the Chrysler ad was still generating buzz.

"Many of us still remember a vibrant Detroit, grieve its loss, and hope for a brighter future," wrote Rick from Ann Arbor on a Wall Street Journal chat board, commenting on a story the business journal wrote about the ad.  "The ad touched a nerve, and I hope not just with those of us living in Michigan."

The Chrysler 200 ad campaign was created by the Portland, Ore.-based Wieden + Kennedy, which has worked for Chrysler and Dodge brands, and is also the longtime agency for Nike.  Wieden + Kennedy is a cutting-edge agency that is known for its controversial bold ideas.  After all, using a pop culture icon -- especially a controversial one like Eminem -- to sell an upscale brand in the midst of a rebounding economy was a risk Chrysler was willing to take.

Trent Roberts, a copy editor for the Charlotte Observer and a former staffer for the Detroit Free Press, described the ad as being powerful and that it rang true in most every way except one:  "Chrysler is just about the just about the last car out of Detroit I could picture Eminem driving," Roberts said.  "Ford, Chevy, Caddy, sure, but Chrysler?  Not so much."  Roberts thought the Chrysler 200 ad was more than your typical car commercial on a couple of levels.

"One, Eminem comes across as totally legit as a spokesman for (Detroit)," Roberts said. "Two, in the end, it felt more like 'Buy American' than 'Buy Chrysler,' and more like 'Save America' than either of those two."

Janice Roberg, founder and principle owner of the Saint Louis-based Roberg Tax Solutions LLC,  appreciated the "Made in America" image and the rebuilding image for Detroit that the ad portrayed.  However, she questioned what audience the luxury car is targeted for.

"I would buy from Detroit," Roberg said, "but I don't buy luxury cars.  The images were pretty gritty, like (Chrysler) was trying to sell a truck."

Like it or not, the Chrysler 200 ad wasn't just about the branding of an American-made automobile.  It was about pride in a people who refuse to give up.  It served as a stark reminder that Detroit was once Motor City -- and it can be again.

(You can view the Chrysler 200 ad via YouTube)

Editor’s note: as Peter Hartlaub wrote, I believe this commercial did far more than advertise the 200 — chosen, most likely, because it is made in greater Detroit; it told people, forcefully, that Chrysler is back. What’s more, it conveyed a Chrysler that could be proud of itself — something missing since the Daimler takeover of 1998.

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