Oliver Francois has lured some of the biggest names in show business for the auto ads he oversees—from Eminem and Clint Eastwood for Chrysler to Bill Murray for Jeep. But there was always one star the Stellantis chief marketing officer could not catch—Bruce Springsteen, who has notoriously avoided commercial appearances for decades.
That changed Sunday when the Boss finally came on board, starring in Jeep’s two-minute Super Bowl ad called “The Middle,” which acts as a unifying cry for a deeply divided nation. The spot, which Jeep released early Sunday morning, comes from Michigan-based agency Doner and was directed by Thom Zimny, a longtime Springsteen collaborator, whose credits include the 2020 Springsteen documentary “Letter to You.”
The ad, narrated by Springsteen, opens with a snowy open road, a close-up of his dusty boots in a dirt-swept old Jeep before a shot of the U.S. Center Chapel, a tiny wooden worship house in Lebanon, Kansas that Springsteen describes in the ad as “standing in the exact center of the lower 48.”
The geographic center of America is used as a metaphor for the political middle ground, which Springsteen describes in the spot as “a hard place to get to lately—between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear”—a clear reference to the nation’s political turmoil, including the deadly Capitol riots and continuing fights between supporters and critics of former president Donald Trump.
Instead of overtly plugging a new Jeep, the ad shows vintage models including a 1980 Jeep CJ-5 and 1965 Willys Jeep CJ-5 against rugged American scenes that include rushing water in Golden, Colorado; Davies Chuck Wagon Restaurant near Denver; and rural landscapes in Hastings, Nebraska. The ad ends back at the chapel where Springsteen urges hope, lighting a candle while suggesting that “our light has always found its way through the darkness.” The ad’s parting message: “To the ReUnited States of America.”
The ad was shot just a short time ago during a five-day period in late January. But Francois’ pursuit of Springsteen lasted for years.
He first approached Springsteen’s longtime manager and confidante Jon Landau some 10 years ago with an ad concept that would eventually become “Halftime in America,” the 2012 Super Bowl ad that ended up starring Eastwood and drew parallels between the fall and rise of the U.S. auto industry and the fortitude of the American people. Francois and Landau shared a common acquaintance, music mogul and Beats headphones co-founder Jimmy Iovine. But when Francois raised the idea putting the Boss in an ad, Landau rejected him on the spot.
“He made it very clear that it would never happen,” Francois recalled in an interview. “Then I probably knocked another couple times.” At times he simply asked to license Springsteen’s songs for ads, “and the answer was the same, he doesn't license his songs for commercials.” Francois and Landau became friends and “I became respectful enough to no longer offer [Springsteen] to do commercials.”
But late last year, a script from Doner for “The Middle” landed on Francois’ desk. The script, written by the agency's executive creative director, Michael Stelmaszek, was delivered by Doner CEO David DeMuth, whose shop has worked for Francois for years.
Francois sat on the script for days but then, after making an early January call to wish Landau well in the new year, something compelled him to try again. “In a way that was almost apologetic, I sent him the script, saying, ‘Hey I am not pushing you at all but I just had the script in the drawer for a few weeks, and I realized that, who knows, Bruce might enjoy at least reading it. And then the answer came very quickly—not only would he enjoy reading it, he’s probably willing to do it.”
Francois, desperate for Springsteen’s cooperation, even offered to let him do the ad from the comfort of his living room, he recalls. But “one thing is clear: Bruce is not normally in for these kind of things, but when he is in, he is all in.”
Soon, Francois met Springsteen on a tarmac at an airport in Hastings, Nebraska, and they drove to the shoot together. “He gave countless hours, more than ever needed, for it to be just perfect. Then he was part of the editing process,” Francois says. Springsteen even scored the ad’s music, working with his frequent collaborator Ron Aniello.
The music is understated and there are no references to Springsteen’s popular songs anywhere in the ad. “We wanted a spiritual experience from the first note to the last wave of Bruce’s hand as his Jeep pulls away,” Francois says. “When Bruce gives you his voice and his words, he doesn’t want people to be distracted by any music, not even his.”
“Our goal was to do something surprising, relevant, immediate and artful,” Landau said in a statement.
While almost prayerful—the ad includes shots of the cross inside the chapel—the spot does tackle politics, a topic for which most Super Bowl advertisers stayed far clear. Many brands went the whimsical route, skirting the serious issues of the pandemic and political upheaval that still dominate the news.
But the ad very much fits the Francois Super Bowl motif of injecting his brands into the cultural conversation, like 2011's award-winning "Imported From Detroit" effort starring Eminem, credited with burnishing the image of Chrysler and the Motor City.
When it comes to delivering a down-the-middle political message, Springsteen is not a purist. He is a noted Democrat, known for performing at political rallies on behalf of presidential candidates. In a June interview with The Atlantic, he called Trump “a threat to our democracy.” But he went on to express hope for unity, alluding to the Black Lives Matter movement while saying “the demonstrations have been white people and Black people and Brown people gathering together in the enraged name of love. That’s a good sign.”
Francois points to Springsteen’s working-class appeal. He says he has attended a lot of his concerts and “the demographics and the psychographics of the Bruce Springsteen arena are exactly those of America.”
“Obviously America is polarized,” Francois adds. “There is a divide and what he wanted to do with us is speak to the common ground.”