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Super Bowl Ad Stories: Chrysler, Eminem Break an Awkward Silence in Detroit

What impact can an ad really have? Can it actually make a city feel better about itself? The answer this morning seems to be yes, thanks to Chrysler and Wieden + Kennedy.

The relationship between America’s car companies and the city that originally made them has been awkward for years. The city of Detroit housed and raised the factory workers of Chrysler, GM, and Ford’s (as some in the city still call it, as if it were still a little family business). But the car companies discouraged diversification of the city’s economy, and city residents will tell you that the Big Three pretty much just stood by as the unemployment rate soared, the school system went sour, violence reached epidemic proportions, and city government became a piggy bank for the friends and family of city officials.

But a Super Bowl ad from the company that is now 25%-owned by foreigners has the whole city buzzing today. Chrysler, which is run by Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne, delivered a rousing two-minute spot last night that summed up the hopes of everyone who believes the city can come back strong. The ad made the front page of today’s Detroit Free Press, with the headline "Motor City Pride." On Facebook, Detroiters across the country are raving about the spot, reflecting the affection they still feel for the city they left. "We all cried," wrote Shelby Meade, a publicist who grew up and attended school in the area but now lives in L.A. "Mom reminded us that Grandpa Walker did advertising for Chrysler."

The ad was ostensibly for the Chrysler 200, and it roared out from the pack of silliness last night during the third quarter. It did so much so right, offering so many details that showed a real understanding of Motown. Opening shots of factories; interstate road signs to introduce the name "Detroit;" cutting to downtown as the narrator begins to discuss "luxury," a downtown still resplendent with buildings and architectural detail from a time when Detroit was the richest city in America; straight ahead references to the fact that the city has "been to hell and back"; and finally a ride down Woodward Avenue, ending up outside the beautiful, powerful Fox Theatre, built in 1928, restored in 1988 thanks to the Ilitch family, which also owns the Red Wings and the Tigers. And the tagline, "Imported from Detroit," is perfect. It blends luxury and quality with Motown pride, while at the same time acknowledging just how much America has wanted to pretend that Detroit is from a different country, an "unAmerican" country that would allow its citizens to live in such despair.

But the biggest choice Wieden + Kennedy and Chrysler made was their choice of spokesmusician. The guy who emerged from that gleaming Chrysler 200 was Eminem, not Kid Rock. Kid Rock is the singer who has been most associated with the revival of the city. His recent 40th birthday concert at Ford Field was a rockfest celebrating the city; he’s sponsored one charitable event after another for Detroit; and he has at least two businesses ("Made in Detroit" clothing and "Badass" Beer) that are local and proud of it.

Eminem’s support of the city has been clear but overshadowed by Kid Rock’s. Not last night. The ad (which had been set up perfectly by an earlier Lipton Brisk spot in which an animated Eminem mocked the singer’s well-known aversion to publicity, love of profanity, and need for "hot chicks") drew power from the fact that Em doesn’t do this kind of thing. There’s a moment early on when viewers could see Eminem at the wheel of the car, creating a level of disbelief that it’s actually him. But the pulsing music behind the whole thing is the great intro to "Lose Yourself," whose propulsive beat has always seemed to me the best modern expression of what’s at the best heart of the city.

The ad caps an amazing year for Wieden + Kennedy. You may remember the Super Bowl last year, when the agency debuted a little ad starring a former footballer who’s come to be known as "The Old Spice Guy." Not a bad 365 days.

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