How Fiat Chrysler CMO Olivier Francois finally got Carl Sagan’s words into a Jeep ad
Three years ago, Fiat Chrysler Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois approached Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, with an idea: Would it be OK if the brand used her husband’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” passage in a Jeep ad?
It was, on the face of it, an outlandish pitch. Sagan’s words, which describe a picture of Earth captured from the far reaches of space in 1990 by NASA’s Voyager 1, have come to symbolize the fragility of our planet, a rallying cry for environmentalists. Jeep is a gas-burning SUV—not an image that Druyan wanted linked with her late husband, the famous astronomer and science writer.
“My first question was, 'Is this for an internal combustion engine?' And he said yes. And I said, please come back when you have an electric vehicle,” Druyan recalls in an interview this week.
Francois, known for never taking no for an answer, did not give up on the idea. And when the automaker finally green-lit plans to electrify Jeep’s lineup, he got Druyan back on the phone. “He said, Annie, we built you a car. And I was so flattered and delighted,” says Druyan, a longtime writer and producer and founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios, a maker of science-based entertainment.
The resulting ad—which debuts on TV next week during Fox’s broadcast of “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”—comes at a key moment for Jeep as it begins an electric ambush that, in the coming years, will include electrification options on all of its nameplates. “We are committed to make Jeep the greenest SUV brand,” Christian Meunier, the brand’s global president, stated in a press release earlier this month.
Electric vehicles, despite years of hype, remain a niche offering in the U.S. But automakers have made them a priority to insulate themselves from the growing threat of regulations targeting fossil fuels, especially globally, where rules are often strict. Fiat Chrysler “has been slower to electrify than other automakers, but they certainly are heading in that direction,” says Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs. “Jeep, and all the automakers, have to be prepared if we have a change in administration and change in Congress—we may start catching up to China and Europe in terms of regulations over emissions.”
Marketing will play a key role for Fiat Chrysler as it seeks to convince skeptical consumers that electric Jeeps meet standards expected by fans of the off-roading brand, whose “go anywhere, do anything” ethos dates back to its 1940s founding as a military vehicle created for Allied soldiers in World War II.
The new ad, which comes from Doner, pushes the Wrangler 4xe, a plug-in-hybrid gas-electric model that the brand says is “capable of up to 25 miles of nearly silent, zero-emission, electric-only propulsion.” The spot takes a cosmic view, beginning with a reference of the shot taken from Voyager that showed the earth as a tiny speck. Sagan famously lobbied NASA to have the spacecraft to turn around and take a final shot of the planet just before its cameras were shut off forever. The image formed the basis of his 1994 book, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”
“Carl had worked since 1981, more than 10 years, trying to lobby NASA to see why it was a good idea to turn Voyager 1’s lens forward,” Druyan says, recalling resistance at the time that claimed the one-pixel shot did not have scientific value. “Carl understood that the Voyager 1 image sits at the intersect where art, science, philosophy, culture—our humanity—meets in one place. You don’t have to have an advanced degree to analyze this photo from the outer solar system: it tells you instantaneously about what our true circumstances are.”
It is, she adds, “an indictment of every fundamentalist polluter, tribalist. Everyone who tries to divide us stands debunked in front of this image.”
Francois had been toying with the idea of turning the image into a Jeep ad a year before he even approached Druyan. Doner had brought the concept to him in an attempt to use it in a Super Bowl ad celebrating Jeep’s 75th anniversary. “It was so perfectly written and romantic,” Francois recalled in an interview. He compared it to another one of the automaker’s ads that used historical language—the 2013 Super Bowl ad for Ram that repurposed radio legend Paul Harvey's "So God Made a Farmer" speech at the 1978 Future Farmers of America convention.
But ultimately, at the urging of then-CEO Sergio Marchionne, the automaker opted for another ad to mark its anniversary—an ad called “Portraits” that ran in the 2016 Super Bowl, featuring photos of famous people who have links to Jeep. Francois says he remained “madly in love” with the Sagan ad concept but after his initial approach to Druyan, “it became clear it would be a very long, long shot.”
“Clearly she is not going to give away her late husband’s voice, spirit, soul—everything—to sell more SUVs,” he says. “The more I speak with Ann the more it becomes clear the project will run into a dead end.”
But their negotiations gained momentum last year when Jeep formalized its electrification strategy. Even then, Francois had to throw in some sweeteners. Rather than paying Druyan a licensing fee, the brand agreed to make donations to combat climate change to the Coalition For Rainforest Nations and the Carl Sagan Institute Of Cornell University Foundation. An unspecified amount will be given for every completed view that the ad gets on YouTube.
Also, Jeep agreed at the end of the ad to plug “Cosmos: Possible Worlds,” which first aired on the National Geographic channel earlier this year. Druyan created the 1980 PBS series “Cosmos” with Sagan and is an executive producer of “Possible Worlds,” which is narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Such deal-making is a long-used tactic by Francois, who for years has lured celebrities to his car ads with partnerships that extend beyond simply writing a check. He often strikes deals with record labels, promising exposure for their artists in Fiat Chrysler ads.
His pact with Druyan is less commercial than most. “She is giving [the rights] to us through this partnership because it is all about giving back,” Francois says. “Money doesn't go in her pocket at all.”
Francois and Druyan—who viewed a rough cut together over a lengthy lunch last year in Los Angeles—stayed in touch throughout the production of the ad, which blends historical images such as Marilyn Monroe riding in a Jeep, with modern-day shots like plastic floating in the ocean (placed with Sagan’s words about “every destroyer of civilization”).
“She was extremely hands-on when it came to the pick of the images and even the lines,” says Francois, noting that she wrote a line that appears in text near the end of the ad: “To explore and cherish the only home we’ve ever known.”