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Why Chrysler ads star Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi

As a brand, there is nothing worthwhile left of Chrysler. Why not begin to remake it in the image of what it will become -- globalized, sophisticated, European -- instead of what it was?

December 08, 2009|Dan Neil
  • Aung San Suu Kyi is a 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burmese pro-democracy dissident who has spent most of the last two decades detained at her house outside of Yangon, Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burmese… (Nyein Chan Naing / EPA )

The newest star of a Chrysler ad couldn't get arrested in this town.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burmese pro-democracy dissident who has spent most of the last two decades detained at her house at Inya Lake, outside of Yangon, Myanmar. Suu Kyi -- who was elected prime minister in 1990, before the military junta invalidated the election -- was again convicted in a sham trial in August after a deranged American, John William Yettsaw, swam out to her house, giving the junta the pretense to charge Suu Kyi with violating the terms of her house arrest. And again, the world denounced Myanmar.

What does any of this have to do with Chrysler? My very question. This week Chrysler -- now owned by Italian auto-making giant Fiat -- launched a high-minded image campaign calling for the unconditional release of Suu Kyi, who is not exactly a household name in the U.S. The 30-second spot is a re-creation of a Lancia spot by Italian ad house Armando Testa. In the spot, we see Nobel laureates -- Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev -- arriving for the 10th Summit of Peace Prize laureates in Berlin.

"You can build walls that separate people from people," the voice-over intones. "But it is impossible to build a wall that separates a man from his freedom." Now we see a white Chrysler 300 tooling past the wall (Is it prom night in Berlin?). A soprano sings a set of minor-key scales. "Because freedom always finds a path to build peace." The car bursts through a wall, and the exploding bricks are transformed into white doves.

"This film is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, still prisoner in Burma." The spot fades out on a poster with Suu Kyi's face and the appeal, "Free now unconditionally."

The end-card slogan: "Chrysler: for a World Without Walls."

Yes, well, in a world without walls, roofs collapse, and when I saw this commercial I certainly felt as though mine had fallen in on me.

And yet, I caught myself in mid-cynical paroxysm. OK, granted, most Americans wouldn't know Suu Kyi if she lobbed a grenade at them. I'll also stipulate that Myanmar is a Double Jeopardy level of difficulty in the geography category. And then there's the babbling prosody of the voice-over. Is it really impossible to build a wall that separates a man from his freedom? I'd say not. And did the scriptwriters overlook the fact that Suu Kyi is a woman?

Like the current National Geographic and the "I Am. Jeep." spots, the Chrysler ad perpetuates a trend in advertising of what might be called nonsense affirmation, a la Eckhart Tolle.

A reasonable objection might be that a Burmese pro-democracy dissident has nothing to do with Chrysler. And I say, what of it? As a brand, there is nothing worthwhile left of Chrysler. It has retreated to marketing's primordial ooze. Why not begin to remake it in the image of what it will become -- globalized, sophisticated, European -- instead of what it was? Chrysler is for all intents now an Italian car company. So Chrysler is right to embrace a larger, less domestically myopic worldview.

Obviously, Fiat-Chrysler's agitations will have zero effect on the Burmese junta, which has shrugged off decades of condemnation over Suu Kyi. So it would be easy enough to charge the spot with exploiting her image to sell scary-looking sedans. If the company wanted to embarrass a regime it might have picked nearer targets, such as the lack of adequate healthcare for the poor or continuing disenfranchisement of African American voters.

But that's the beauty of the Suu Kyi message. It's noble yet at a safe distance. There's not much risk of blow-back. Cynicism is actually a fairly useful faculty.

Also -- and this is back-of-the-house stuff -- the spot apparently cost Chrysler next to nothing to produce. A story in this week's Ad Age caused a kerfuffle when it said, erroneously, that Chrysler had used federal bailout money to hire an Italian ad agency at the same time it was pulling the plug on longtime agency of record BBDO Detroit. Not so, responded Chrysler chief Olivier Francois. It simply, and cheaply, repackaged the Lancia ad. That's just good business.

Will the spot move the sheet metal? You couldn't sell these cars if you stocked them like a bass pond with vestal virgins. But I do think it sets an interesting and positive tone for the brand while the company is, literally, retooling (Chrysler's new Fiat-based products are a good 18 months away). It aims at a smarter, better educated, more engaged audience, people who can find Myanmar, on a map. It has all the textures of Europhilic sophistication -- the opera singer, the Brandenburg Gate, etc.

It's not about the Chrysler that was, but the one that is about to be.

dan.neil@latimes.com

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