DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- I was talking with an old college friend the other night when he asked me what I was writing about these days.
"Covering Chrysler," I said.
"Really? I thought they were out of business."
His perception makes it painfully clear what Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne is up against.
During the Detroit auto show, Mr. Marchionne acknowledged the challenge: "We've looked at this. Is there a perception in the marketplace that Chrysler is still bankrupt? Or even if we're out, then we're not going to make it?"
Unlike many CEOs, Mr. Marchionne is intimately involved in the details of advertising and communications. And he's willing to defy conventional wisdom in Detroit to shake the company out of its sales doldrums with a different kind of message.
Under the watchful eye of the boss, the company has been running a spate of new ads, some of them unorthodox. A Chrysler brand ad embraced a human-rights campaign on behalf of a Burmese pro-democracy activist. A Jeep ad showed clocks but no Jeeps.
Hard-pressed dealers want ads that show product attributes and incentive programs -- ads that sell cars now. Mr. Marchionne understands that but says he's building brands to ensure the company's long-term survival. He says Chrysler won't engage in "the cheap practices of volume acquisition."
But a little volume clearly is needed. Chrysler Group's U.S. sales fell 36% in 2009, compared with a drop of 21% for the industry.
Mr. Marchionne's reaction to the criticism of some of the early ads? He'd rather have bad publicity than no publicity at all. "I don't mind that people say 'I hate this piece'" or "'I don't like what I saw; I would have done it differently,'" he said at the Detroit show.
He said he wants to change the subject away from topics that have dominated the news, such as "rejected dealers and Chapter 11 and Sen. McCain saying Chrysler won't make it." So Chrysler's brands have been running a flurry of ads since December, "designed to be different from the rest" as the brands reconstitute their DNA, he said.
New Dodge Charger ads, created by Wieden & Kennedy, highlight the car's masculine virtues. One features the voice-over of actor Michael C. Hall, star of the series "Dexter," talking about the things the car isn't: "a man bag," "a yoga class."
Mr. Marchionne recalled watching some earlier Jeep commercials with brand CEO Michael Manley. They knew what they wanted to communicate, but the execution wasn't there, Mr. Marchionne said.
"We're bound to make mistakes. That's the good thing about this group -- it goes back and retrenches and it keeps on moving. You'll see some more screw-ups, I guarantee you."
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Bradford Wernle is a staff reporter for Automotive News.