2012-02-10 "Eastwood 'halftime in America' ad inspires debate" by Carla Marinucci from "San Francisco Chronicle"
San Francisco adman Jeff Goodby was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday - right in the stands - when his cell phone erupted with excited text messages: "Check out that Democratic ad!" and "See that Republican ad?"
The unlikely sensation was actor Clint Eastwood, a Republican, starring in a gritty, two-minute television commercial for Chrysler that went viral. As pictures of American workers flashed on the screen, the star who forged the phrase "make my day" kicked off a national political debate with a new tagline: "It's halftime in America."
Goodby, whose agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, has created award-winning ads and put the phrase "Got Milk?" into the national lexicon, said the memorable car spot about America "roaring back" was "beautiful and well done, an inspiration."
The national discussion of the commercial underscores the magic of advertising: how one well-crafted spot selling everyday products can distill the yearnings and dreams of average Americans in a way that political teams selling candidates can only hope to achieve.
But there are such moments. In 1984, San Francisco adman Hal Riney debuted "Morning in America," the iconic spot for President Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign, sending the message of a nation emerging "prouder and stronger and better" from its struggles through a recession.
Party mixer -
Goodby said the Oregon ad agency of Wieden+Kennedy, which created the Eastwood spot, also aimed to sell good feelings. The ad "did a good job of avoiding political overtones by using a Republican spokesperson," an actor with longtime GOP loyalties, Goodby added, and melding it with "a Democratic message" of economic comeback.
Talking up the rebound of the auto industry and a resurgent America was hardly political, he said: "What's not to agree with?"
Plenty, according to leading GOP backers and insiders including Karl Rove, who called the Eastwood ad "offensive," and who have eviscerated the Chrysler spot as thinly veiled political propaganda aimed at boosting President Obama's re-election agenda.
Bob Gardner, who heads San Francisco marketing firm the Advocacy Group and is a veteran of national GOP political campaigns, said of the spot aired before a record 111.3 million Super Bowl viewers: "At the end, it should have said, 'I'm Barack Obama and I approve of this message - and thank goodness I didn't have to pay for it.' "
The GOP's scathing reaction to the ad was in sharp contrast to praise from Democrats such as Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, who within minutes of the ad's debut tweeted that it was "powerful" - and praised Republican Eastwood for his involvement.
With California Democrats holding their statewide convention this weekend in San Diego, controversy over the Eastwood commercial's effectiveness raises a key question for Republicans and Democrats as the 2012 election approaches: Which party will more effectively seize a positive message in the presidential campaign?
Negative message -
"Republicans don't have a positive message. It's all about 'Obama's a bum,' " said state Democratic chair John Burton, who will address an estimated 3,000 party faithful this weekend.
Burton, who has known Eastwood for a long time, said his friend "was doing an ad about what he believes in - that people want to be positive; they want to be in favor of something, instead of against stuff."
Because Republican presidential candidates for months have been pounding the president for being "antireligion," "antibusiness" and "socialist," some Republicans worry that they're too attached to negative messaging as the nation's job and economic numbers appear to be on the uptick.
"They're using anything and everything to attack Obama - except, of course, a good candidate," said Goodby, who describes himself as "a registered Republican who votes Democratic."
Gardner, who created campaign spots for President Gerald Ford and then-Rep. Dick Cheney, praised the choice of Eastwood for the ad, calling him an American icon. But he argued that the ad's content was a different matter: It didn't sell cars as much as a "subliminal political message" that clearly pushed a Democratic line.
But Los Angeles marketing and advertising consultant Bruce Silverman, who served as creative director at three of the nation's largest ad agencies and produced Merrill Lynch's memorable "We're bullish on America" ad, challenged that notion.
The Eastwood spot and the "Morning in America" ad by Riney, who was Silverman's colleague at the Ogilvy & Mather ad agency, have clear parallels because Riney produced "one of those ads people remember for a lifetime ... because they touch the spirit," Silverman said.
"That ad represented a yearning," Silverman said. "America was down, it wasn't feeling good about itself. But America, by nature, is an optimistic country. We come through tough times, and Riney and his team really tapped into it."
Republican misstep -
Ruth Sherman, who heads a media training firm in Connecticut, said Republicans may have made a misstep by jumping on a spot with an "America is back" message.
"Everyone wants to be on the side of Clint Eastwood," said Sherman. "In fact, the car business is back; the auto industry has rebounded ... and for the time being, things are looking up in Detroit.
"So I do think Axelrod co-opting it was the right move, a very good pivot," she said. And Rove "made a mistake by not seizing on it himself and saying, 'This is exactly what we're saying.' "
Goodby said it's too early to tell how well the ad will sell cars or promote the idea that "it's halftime in America." But an ad that stands the test of time, he said, is "something that captures what people are thinking and caring about in a deep way, at a certain point in time."
While the goal of "It's Halftime in America" may have been to sell Chryslers, Goodby said, it may now be judged by something else.
"Let's see if it elects a president - or not," he said.