Rewind: What Celine Dion's 2003 Chrysler Ad Should Teach Us

Celebrities Don't Always Move Cars Off the Lot

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In the first two installments of our new Rewind series, we revisited a 1960's cereal commercial starring Andy Griffith as Sherriff Taylor and a 1977 "times have changed" spot promoting the Hula Hoop. Today we look in more recent archives to relive Celine Dion's big campaign for Chrysler Group, still a cautionary tale for marketing.

People who don't study history are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes. That must be why ad agencies continue to crank out car ads that rely on celebrities rather than a focus on what makes the car different. Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Lopez have held forth in recent months on behalf of Fiat, part of Chrysler -- even though that automaker learned just short of a decade ago that having a celebrity sing the praises of your automobile can easily leave a sour note.

It was January 2003 when Chrysler Group, then a merged company of Germany's Daimler and America's Chrysler, unveiled a three-year agreement with Celine Dion, best known for her overwrought version of "My Heart Will Go On" from the blockbuster movie "Titanic." Valued at anywhere from $10 million to $14 million, the pact was to have Ms. Dion hitting high notes on behalf of Chrysler automobiles. Not too long thereafter, Chrysler unveiled a new campaign, crafted with Omnicom Group's BBDO and Arnell Group, sporting Ms. Dion driving a Chrysler Pacifica while warbling "I Drove All Night" in the background.

You've got to wonder why no one thought twice about using a celebrity whose crowning achievement is reminding people about a sinking ship.

The ad campaign quickly bombed, not only with consumers, but with dealers who had to sell the car. By early May, marketing chief James Schroer, who put the commercials on the air, stepped down from the automaker, and Pacifica car sales were noticeably weak. By the end of June, the ads were all but off the air, and Ms. Dion was singing for her supper elsewhere. Mr. Schroer's successor, Joe Eberhardt, later acknowledged the Pacifica ads hinged overmuch on Ms. Dion, who was promoting a new album after a spell out of the spotlight, and didn't point out any of Pacifica's features or hammer home the idea that the so-called "crossover vehicle" was a combination sedan, minivan and SUV.

Chrysler would end up parting ways with Arnell Group (which would later be involved in a major gaffe with PepsiCo, redesigning packages for Tropicana juice that left consumers flat) and renegotiated its contract with BBDO.

Maybe Chrysler learned half the lesson at least. New management at Chrysler has turned again and again to eyebrow-raising ads featuring celebrities, including Clint Eastwood in a dramatic Super Bowl ad, along with Mr. Sheen and Ms. Lopez hawking Fiat. But Mr. Eastwood may have fit Chrysler's brand and recent purposes better than Ms. Dion did. Chrysler said Monday its U.S. sales of passenger cars surged 42% during the second quarter compared with the year-earlier period.

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