Clint Eastwood's Chrysler Super Bowl Ad: The Untold Obama Connection

Unite America Art Split - P 2012

Unite America Art Split - P 2012

Two members of the creative team that produced the two-minute minute spot for ad agency Wieden+Kennedy donated their personal time in 2008 to make pro-Obama art.

This year’s most discussed Super Bowl ad—a two-minute spot for Chrysler narrated by Clint Eastwood—continues to generate controversy in conservative political circles, where a host of questions have been raised about the automaker’s alleged motives for commissioning the advertisement.

In the days ahead, similar politically charged queries also are likely to be raised about the highly regarded Portland Oregon-based ad agency that produced the spot—Wieden+Kennedy, some of whose key creative professionals privately supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election.

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Eastwood was the surprise narrator of the spot that aired during Sunday’s NFL title game, one which both Republican and Democratic politicos have characterized as subtly echoing some of the incumbent president’s major reelection campaign themes. Political advertising mavens also have pointed out that the Chrysler ad’s title and theme—“It’s Halftime in America”—closely parallels one of the two most famous campaign ads in history: Ronald Reagan’s famous—and legendarily effective—“It’s Morning in America” spot.

In an appearance on Fox News Monday, GOP political strategist Karl Rove charged that, “The leadership of the auto companies feel they need to do something to repay their political patronage. It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”

Chrysler Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne, however, insisted to a Detroit radio station interviewer that the spot had "zero political content. I think we need to be careful, and God knows, I mean I can't stop anybody from associating themselves with a message but it was not intended to be any type of political overture on our part.”

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Similarly, in an email to the New York Times Tuesday, Eastwood wrote, “The ad doesn’t have a political message. It is about American spirit, pride and job growth.” (Chrysler paid NBC about $12.8 million to air the spot; Eastwood will reportedly donate his fees for narrating and briefly appearing in the ad to charity.)

Wieden+Kennedy, which produced “It’s Halftime in America,” has a reputation as a highly creative ad agency with a flair for weaving appealing, socially conscious themes into its clients’ messages. Its major corporate accounts include Nike, Coca Cola, ESPN, Honda, Old Spice, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Starbucks, Heineken, Dodge and Chrysler for which it produced a Super Bowl spot last year. The agency currently is collaborating with former Vice President Al Gore on a project linking gaming and concern over global warming.

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Several members of the Wieden+Kennedy team that produced the Eastwood spot were among the creative professionals who privately supported Obama’s first election campaign. Creative director Aaron Allen, for example, created a striking poster, called "Unite the States of America," on candidate Obama’s behalf. The poster shows an Obama silhouette bringing together red and blue spheres meant to represent America’s partisan division. His official bio notes that he “also works on personal art projects, including a poster for the 2008 Obama campaign that was shown in several galleries and publications.”

The ad’s art director, Jimm Lasser, created an entire art exhibit in New York around Nike-style shoes bearing Obama’s image. Another of the creative directors, Michael Tabtabai has used his Twitter account recently to send out the message “Obama x Incredible Hulk. America STRONG!” and linking to an image of an action doll of the president looking like the comic book super hero.

The Eastwood spot actually was produced by Los Angeles and New York-based Chelsea Pictures, which selected David Gordon Green, best known for the comedy film Pineapple Express, to direct the ad.

In the Chrysler ad, the director and star narrates an inspirational message while images of Detroit assembly lines and ordinary working Americans roll across the screen. Finally, Eastwood emerges from a gritty tunnel to speak to the camera in person. “It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half,” Eastwood begins. “It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback.

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“We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way then we’ll make one. All that matters now is what’s ahead, how do we come from behind, how do we come together, and how do we win. Detroit’s showing us it can be done.” Eastwood also speaks of an America “roaring back.”

Just an hour or so before the spot aired, Obama told a pre-game interviewer that he “deserves a second term,” in part because his economic policies have coaxed the country into recovery—a point Democrats argue was reinforced by the most recent declines in unemployment. The President made a similar set of points during a recent address in the Motor City, where his administration’s successful bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors are highly poplar.

While the background of some of Wieden+Kennedy’s creative team probably will fuel further conservative suspicions, there’s also some online evidence suggesting that there was neither consultation nor collaboration between the agency and the Obama reelection campaign. Following the president’s Labor Day speech to a Detroit audience, creative director Joe Staples tweeted, “I think Obama just paraphrased our ad in his Labor Day speech [from Detroit] Holy crap.”

Sunday, Obama political adviser David Axelrod tweeted that the ad was a “powerful spot”, but then went on to wonder, “Did Clint shoot that, or just narrate it?”

Chrysler’s spot, moreover, wasn’t the only Super Bowl ad that seemed to adopt themes from the Obama reelection campaign’s playbook. GE’s advertisement showed American workers once more on the assembly line turning out industrial projects for domestic consumption, something the president hopes to encourage with his policies. Both ads sounded themes similar to Obama’s in front of the largest audience ever to watch an American television broadcast—111.3 million people.