DETROIT — People rarely pick a fight with Dirty Harry. But Chrysler's "Halftime in America" ad featuring quintessential tough guy Clint Eastwood has generated fierce debate about whether it accurately portrays the country's most economically distressed city or amounts to a campaign ad for President Barack Obama and the auto bailouts.
The ad equates Detroit as a model for American recovery as idealistic images of families, middle class workers and factories scroll across the screen.
"People are out of work and they're hurting," the 81-year-old Eastwood says in his trademark gravelly voice. "And they're all wondering what they're gonna do to make a comeback. And we're all scared because this isn't a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now, Motor City is fighting again."
Conservatives, including GOP strategist Karl Rove, criticized the ad as a not-so-thinly veiled endorsement of the federal government's auto industry bailouts. Others questioned basing a story of economic resurgence in a city that remains in fiscal disarray, with a $200 million budget deficit and cash flow concerns that have it fending off a state takeover.
But is it political? It depends on who you ask.
"I can't stop anybody from associating themselves with a message, but it was not intended to be any type of political overture on our part," Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne told WJR-AM in Detroit on Monday. "You know, we're just an ingredient of a big machine here in this country that makes us go on."
Last year was a pivotal turnaround year for Chrysler, which nearly collapsed in 2009. The company and its financial arm needed a $12.5 billion government bailout and a trip through bankruptcy protection to survive. Chrysler has since repaid its U.S. and Canadian government loans by refinancing them, but the U.S. government says it lost about $1.3 billion on the deal.
The Eastwood ad follows a highly popular one aired last Super Bowl that featured stark images of hip-hop star and Detroit-native Eminem driving a Chrysler 200 through the city streets and introduced the tagline "Imported From Detroit." This time around, the focus was on faces and factories — far less on cars. On Monday, editions of USA Today came wrapped in a four-page ad featuring Eastwood, images from the television commercial and another promise to get back to work.
"It was very powerful, not only for Detroit but for the country and also for Chrysler," Allen Adamson, a managing director at brand consulting firm Landor Associates Adamson, said of the ad. "Of all the three, Chrysler was the least likely to succeed, the least likely to survive the storm. And they have come out with potentially the strongest story."
Adamson also compared the ad to Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" ad in 1984, which tried to capture a feeling of American optimism during his re-election campaign. Reagan's ad also was notable for its optimism, showing images of people going to work, buying homes, and getting married in greater numbers. "It's morning again in America," a narrator says in a calm voice.
Rove told Fox News on Monday that he was "offended" by Chrysler's ad, saying it amounted to "using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best-wishes of the management which is benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they'll never pay back."
Obama spokesman Jay Carney told the AP that the White House had no role in in the ad's production, but said it pointed out "a simple fact, which is that the auto industry in this country was on its back and potentially poised to liquidate three years ago."
"This president made decisions that were not very popular at the time that were guided by two important principles," Carney added. "One, that he should do what he could to ensure that one million jobs would not be lost and, two, that the American automobile industry should be able to thrive globally if the right conditions were created, and that included the kinds of reforms and restructuring that Chrysler and GM undertook in exchange for the assistance from the American taxpayer."
Politics have been mixed along with movies for Eastwood, who had publicly slammed the auto bailouts. He's a fiscal conservative but more liberal on social issues including gay marriage and environmental protections. The former nonpartisan mayor of Carmel, Calif., who supported GOP presidential contender John McCain in 2008, told the Los Angeles Times last November that he can't ever recall voting for a Democrat for president but expressed admiration for California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
On Monday, he told Fox News that he is "certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama."
"It was meant to be a message about just about job growth and the spirit of America," Eastwood said. "I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK."
Eastwood's longtime manager Leonard Hirshan told the AP that any stance Eastwood took on the auto bailout "has nothing to do with the commercial" and that the actor donated his fee from the commercial to a charity in Monterey, Calif., near where he lives.
Mayor Dave Bing called Chrysler's ad a bit of positive public relations for a city that rarely pats itself on the back.
"I think the history in Detroit is one that is gritty. People have been down, but they get back up and they don't quit," Bing said. "Chrysler, they've been down more than once and they have not quit and they've come back."
Analyst Bill Carroll of New York-based Katz Media said the ad is effective as American and industry boosterism.
"I don't know that I would consider it political, other than if being pro-American is political, then it's political," Carroll said. "If underscoring the fact that the auto industry has made a significant comeback and is bringing back manufacturing jobs to the U.S. is political, then so be it."
Associated Press writers Mae Anderson in New York, Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington, Lynn Elber in Los Angeles and Tom Krisher, Dave Runk and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.