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Can Sex and Saucy Ads Sell Chryslers?


The company is retooling??o get ready for Dodges that look like Fiats and TV spots with Gallic sizzle

Sex appeal has virtually disappeared from American car marketing. So when models wearing metallic minidresses shared a stage with a Chrysler concept car at the Detroit Auto Show in January, some onlookers declared the display pass?? and even d??class??. Olivier Fran??ois, the impeccably dressed Frenchman in charge of Chrysler's latest rebranding effort, was merely bemused. "I am doing here what I know from [home]," he said.

Chrysler is turning European again. This time, it's not the Germans calling the shots, as they did during Chrysler's short-lived marriage to Daimler (DAI). Now the Italians from Fiat and their French marketing chief are in charge, and the next generation of Chryslers and Dodges will resemble the quirky little cars that zip around Rome. Fran??ois, meanwhile, is willing to push buttons with his marketing??ven at the risk of offending prim American sensibilities.

The product and branding makeover amounts to a screeching U-turn for an automaker best known for the Town & Country minivan, the gangsterish Chrysler 300, and the macho Dodge Ram pickup. But CEO Sergio Marchionne badly needs to attract a younger, hipper, wealthier customer as Chrysler's traditional buyers age and dwindle in number. Chasing the same people would be a "dead-end road," says Alexander H. Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, a San Diego consumer research firm. At the same time, Edwards acknowledges "it's a big step to go after a different buyer."

The task falls to Fran??ois, 48, who has a record for marketing stunts that generate controversy. For example, Fran??ois can be pointedly political, something American car companies avoid (except of course for feel-good flag-waving). In 2008, Fiat apologized to China after a European Lancia ad starring Richard Gere obliquely backed an independent Tibet. Last December, a Chrysler ad that aired on U.S. television featured Mikhail Gorbachev, Poland's Lech Walesa, and Mohammed Yunus, who founded microlender Grameen Bank. Each man climbs out of a 300 sedan, and a fourth car arrives empty. An announcer dedicates the ad to jailed Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

The spot was a remake??n Italian ad agency simply swapped out the original car, a Lancia Delta??nd Fran??ois could justifiably argue that he was getting good value for money. That didn't stop the carping. In an Advertising Age story, former Chrysler marketer Julie Roehm said most Americans wouldn't know who Suu Kyi is. The article quoted other critics who said it was inappropriate for Chrysler to use an Italian agency for the work when the U.S. government owns 10% of the carmaker. Fran??ois later posted a note on the company's Web site: "Hopefully readers in a democratic society [can] decide for themselves if they should be upset."

Dodge won't get its complement of Italian-style models for at least two years. In the meantime, Fran??ois is trying to generate new heat around the brand's muscle cars. Exhibit A: the slyly sexist commercial for the Dodge Charger that ran during the Super Bowl. Called "Man's Last Stand," it featured closeups of regular guys (voiced by Dexter star Michael C. Hall) saying: "I will shave. I will carry your lip balm. I will put the seat down." The commercial ends with a Charger speeding away as Hall intones: "Because I do this, I will drive the car I want to drive."

"AN EASY TARGET"

Fran??ois was looking for buzz, and he got it. Several women created parodies of the ad on YouTube. Independent filmmaker MacKenzie Fegan made one called "Woman's Last Stand." It features women saying things like: "I will put my career on hold to raise your children. I will diet, botox, and wax everything." Fegan says that she was "mildly offended by the ad" and that its blunt message and simple format made it "an easy target."

This isn't the first time Chrysler has tried to be edgy. In the early 2000s a commercial featured a mother telling her daughter she was named Concordia because she'd been conceived in their Concorde sedan. "Some people like the Concorde for its engaging style," the tagline went. "Others just like its really big back seat." Another spot featured a reference to wife-swapping. After receiving complaints, Chrysler eventually tweaked the campaign. Roehm was forced to cancel a Super Bowl event dubbed the Lingerie Bowl, during which scantily clad women were to play football. In a promotional video, Fran??ois says he's looking for cars "people want to make out in." But he says he will not go near the kind of controversy generated by Chrysler in the past.

Irreverence may get people talking about Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep again. Much harder is appealing to the broad range of people who still buy cars from these brands without alienating one group or another. Dodge will require a particularly delicate dance. About three-fourths of its buyers are men, and Dodge steward Ralph Gilles wants to attract more women. He recently began running an online ad in which a guy kicks his girlfriend out of their apartment and begins throwing her belongings out the window. Among them are the keys to her Charger, which she starts up and drives away. This spring Chrysler plans to start running family-friendly commercials aimed at soccer moms and dads.

Fiat's Chrysler rehabilitation strategy has attracted plenty of skeptics. Marchionne likes to point out that he turned around Fiat when they said it couldn't be done. Then, he and Fran??ois were marketing to nationalistic Italians who were craving decent cars. "Fixing Chrysler won't be as easy," says IHS Global Insight analyst John Wolkonowicz. "Americans don't have that kind of loyalty."

Welch is Bloomberg Businessweek's Detroit bureau chief.

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