Notes on an Emotional Masterpiece
Or: why “Imported from Detroit” is the most memorable TV spot of the 21st century
[This is a companion piece to “The Voice Test, Or: why everyone understands that Morgan Freeman is the most powerful person on Earth.”]
During the 2011 Super Bowl, Chrysler ran one of the best TV spots in recent memory. It starred Eminem, the Chrysler 200 and the Selected of God gospel choir on the stage of the Fox Theater. But the hero of the commercial — the true protagonist — was the city of Detroit.
“Imported from Detroit” was 120 seconds of well-crafted emotional power that used Detroit’s isolation in America — geographically, culturally, criminally, artistically — to its advantage when introducing Chrysler’s new line of luxury sedans. To date, the commercial has more than 16 million views on Chrysler’s YouTube channel.
I can only imagine how many advertising agencies were asked to duplicate the tone and feel of “Imported from Detroit” by their clients. I would almost guarantee that products as diverse as yogurt, bathroom cleaner, contact lenses and Italian fast-food restaurants looked their creative directors in the eye and said: “Go make that. But for us.”
At the time, I was a creative director. Within a month of the 2011 Super Bowl, I was sitting at a conference table with the CEO, CMO and future Chairperson of the Board of Directors of a multibillion-dollar enterprise. It was a very long meeting about their next marketing campaign, but it can be summed up in six words. They said: “Go make that. But for us.”
Here’s the thing, though — it wasn’t a ridiculous request. The company didn’t make yogurt or shower cleaner, and it had strong ties to a particular geography. No one was asking us to shoot a local musician driving around in a Honda Civic menacing the streets of a town before he arrived at a community theater with a barbershop quartet on stage. They just wanted to honor the spirit of their hometown.
The project was different enough in many aspects that it never bothered my conscience that it was derived out of a request that referenced another product and commercial. That said, I needed to dissect “Imported from Detroit” and understand why it resonated so well with viewers, because it was that resonance that our client was requesting. What follows is a summary of why I believe millions of Americans walked away from “Imported from Detroit” like few people walk away from any commercial — simultaneously inspired, proud and humbled.
Some things to keep in mind: it was written more than two years ago, so some of the observations are either obvious (because they’ve since come true) or sound way off the mark (because the predictions or sentiments never materialized). Also, I realize that Medium has a wonderfully international audience (as I learned firsthand). If you’re not from America, understand that I was looking to discover the emotional center of Americans. I was trying to find the truth of the American Heart, not the truth of American fiscal or military policies.
Detroit is America.
Detroit is a distinctly American city. So is its most famous product: the automobile. Never mind that Carl Benz invented a horseless carriage in Germany more than 20 years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T to America. Never mind that Japanese, German and Korean manufacturers rival America’s Big Three. And never mind that the majority of the shares of one of those manufacturers — Chrysler, the very company that inspired this analysis — is now owned by an Italian car company. Never mind all of that. Detroit is American.
But it’s not just American. Metaphorically, the city is America itself. In 2008, America took a beating. An alarm clock sounded in the economy and quickly woke up many people from the American Dream. Instead of looking ahead to a bigger house and a nicer car, Americans found themselves just trying to maintain what they already had. Many of us couldn’t even do that. Foreclosures, defaults, unemployment — everything went through the roof. Overnight, thrive became survive. No major city was hit as hard as Detroit. No matter how hard it got in their own cities, many Americans lived by the mantra: “At least we’re not Detroit.”
As the economy has turned, so has Detroit. It once served as a metaphor for the American dream. Then it was the worst example of an American Defeat. And now it’s leading the way in the American Comeback. Detroit is America. That’s one of the main reasons why people thousands of miles away from the city embraced Chrysler’s Super Bowl Spot. It wasn’t just Detroit’s story. It was their own.
Once Chrysler and their agency — Wieden + Kennedy — spent a minute and fifty seconds uniting the rest of America with the Detroit story, they then separated Detroit once again by using the line: “Imported from Detroit.” This didn’t just put Detroit on par with the rest of America. It exalted the city. So we collectively went from saying “At least we’re not Detroit” to “We can never be Detroit.” It was fucking brilliant.
America loves the underdog. Especially when America is the underdog.
Detroit is a city that got knocked on its ass and now wants a rematch. It lost the title. It’s looking to take it back.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for America, too. Detroit feels like it was getting beat by Japanese-owned companies like Toyota and Honda in everyday cars and by European manufacturers when it came to luxury autos.
The metaphor isn’t direct here. In 2008, America didn’t lose its title to anyone in particular. No other economy came in and took our place atop the world, but it did feel like we got knocked down. And it happened in front of the world. It was embarrassing. Like any champion who finds himself on the mat, we’re looking to prove that we still deserve to reign supreme. It feels a little like the cards are stacked against us.
For the first time in the history of most Americans, our country feels like the underdog on the world economic stage. We’re used to getting beat in soccer and other “foreign” sports. We are not used to getting beat in business. Brute economic strength is our trademark, and it took a shot on the chin a few years ago. We feel like we have a lot to prove. The Chrysler spot carried the tone of a confident underdog, and it made America feel good about America.
(As Detroit serves as a metaphor for the American comeback, on an even more micro scale, so does Eminem. He’s a great example of a struggling champion. His battles with drugs and other demons have been highly publicized. He looked like he was out of the game for a while. With the release of Recovery, he didn’t just get back up and fight. He threw a hard uppercut and stunned all of the gawkers who’d gathered around to watch his defeat.)
It’s not a commercial about cars. Yet it was the most powerful, most memorable car commercial in years.
Watch the commercial again. When does it mention Chrysler? For that matter, when does it mention cars? Of course, Detroit is synonymous with cars. And of course, the spot shows the Chrysler 200 quite a bit. But it doesn’t sell cars directly.
Wieden+Kennedy and Chrysler didn’t just give up showing features to talk about benefits. They gave up benefits to focus on emotion. And how did they evoke that emotion? By talking about the most important person in the equation of any commercial: they talked about me. If you agree with the theories above regarding Detroit as a metaphor for America and America itself as the new underdog, most Americans sitting in front of the television on game day felt like that message was directed toward them — whether they were in Detroit, Denver or the entire state of Delaware.
For 107 seconds, the Chrysler commercial talks about the audience, not the product. Even after Eminem delivers his lines (“This is the Motor City. And this is what we do.”), the VO never comes back in and talks about cars. There’s a nice sequence of shots that reveal the Chrysler 200 more than any previous shots. But that’s it. If viewers want to know more about the company or the car, they have to engage the information themselves. This is a purely emotional sell. And it works brilliantly.
Postscript: If the story of Detroit interests you, one of the best movies I’ve seen in recent memory is Detropia, a documentary directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady and edited by Enat Sidi. It’s visual poetry, a beautiful look at a painful topic. As of this writing, it’s available on American Netflix.