Ad Report Card: Chrysler’s Sex Machine

Earlier this year, Chrysler debuted a new ad for its Concorde sedan. More recently, the carmaker rolled out a slightly different version, with a new ending. Why? Because at least some viewers found the original ad a bit distasteful. Now, other viewers think the revised spot is a big wimp-out. I’ll explain below, but if you want to see both versions, click here for the original, and here for the second draft. (Also before I go any further, I apologize to Ad Report Card readers who have been e-mailing me about this commercial from the beginning—while I dilly-dallied in getting the spots from Chrysler, New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliot beat me to addressing the controversy a couple of weeks ago.)

The Ad, Take 1: A Concorde tools through a leafy suburban neighborhood. A prim mom, who looks vaguely like Hillary Clinton, is driving with her young daughter. “Mom,” the girl asks earnestly, “how did I get my name?” Mom, equally earnest, smiles warmly and says, “We named you kids after the places where you were conceived.” Daughter: “So, that’s why I’m named Savannah.” Mom, smiling and pleased: “Right.” At this point a female voice-over remarks, “Some like the redesigned Chrysler Concorde for its engaging style and engineering.” Then another question occurs to the little girl. “But Mom, how did she get the name Concorde?” Mom’s smile drops, and they both look at the infant strapped into a car seat in the back. Mom doesn’t answer, and the earnest daughter’s eyes fall on the car’s name engraved in the dashboard. Mom smiles weakly. The girl stares at her, appalled. The voice-over butts in again to say, “Others just like its really big back seat.” We cut to an exterior shot of the car puttering through the burbs, as we hear the daughter say, “Aw, yuk, Mom.”

Too Much Information? Some who saw this ad felt about the way the daughter did—that they had had just heard more about the roominess of the Concorde’s back seat than they wanted to hear. “Repulsive,” pronounced one Ad Report Card reader at the time. Another added that the “sledgehammer sexual innuendo … just creeped me out.” That reader apparently wasn’t alone. A Chrysler spokesman I talked to on Dec. 5 said the company heard from “a few hundred callers, out of the thousands, perhaps millions who saw the ad” who found it “offensive.”

The Ad, Take 2: And so a revised version appeared, apparently in mid-November. Now, instead of saying that some like the Concorde’s “really big back seat,” the voice-over says they like “its roomy interior.” But the more significant change is this: After the awkward silence in which the girl spies the word Concorde on the dash and perhaps flashes to a mental image of her parents in the act of conceiving her little sister, we don’t hear her blurting a grossed-out “Yuck,” but instead we hear Mom saying, “Concord, Massachusetts, silly.” (Um, what about the different spelling? Phonetics come first in this family, I guess.)

Commercial Interruptus: So, is the new ad more tasteful? Or did Chrysler simply punk out? Obviously, the altered ad still makes the same point: The Concorde’s back seat is spacious. How spacious? So darn spacious that it’s easy to imagine even full-fledged yuppies having sex in it! Not only that, it’s so darn spacious that it’s easy for their young daughter to imagine them making babies back there! That’s how spacious! Basically the new version falls in the category of immaculate dirty jokes—the sort that lead the listener to draw some obvious off-color conclusion, then take a quick swerve to innocence so the joke-teller can tut-tut at you for having a dirty mind. Anyway, I can’t imagine that anyone who was offended by the original ad would be appeased by the new ending.

And in any case, what Chrysler is up to here isn’t just finding a clever way to underscore the Concorde’s roominess. After all, you could make that point by, I don’t know, stuffing the back seat with a bunch of children or a hundred basketballs or a piano or whatever else would fit back there. Instead what Chrysler is aiming for is suggesting that perfect mix of outward respectability and secret thrill-seeking: The real pitch here is that if you, too, are by all outward appearances an upstanding adult, yet you still are (or at least still seem) hot-blooded and racy enough to make it in the back seat now and again, then this is the sedan for you.

All of that, of course, falls under the broad category of Very Familiar Brand Messages. The reason is obvious enough: Lots of people, especially people who by outward appearances are boring conformists, like the idea of smoothly being able to pull off a balancing act between propriety and passion. The trouble here—and probably the bit that people actually find offensive—is that the earnestly inquisitive kid immediately gets the picture. If your preadolescent daughter finds it that easy to figure out your, um, secret, then you’re not being smooth, you’re being a bit clumsy.