Strong writing, dramatic tension made Chrysler’s Super Bowl commercial a winner

There were plenty of Super Bowl ads this year that featured fast cars, scantily-clad women and cute animals.

But Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” commercial stood out because of the writing and narration that drove it. The two-minute ad, narrated by Clint Eastwood, relied on several components of good writing, including a strong opening, metaphors, and short and powerful sentences.

“I think it was a combination of the delivery, the writing, and the catchphrase ‘It’s Halftime in America’” that made it so compelling, said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “It’s clearly a commercial that’s playing in a culture of economic context.”

The commercial was reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” message, which showed Americans returning to work and other signs of an economic upturn.

Related: Click here to view Roy Peter Clark’s X-ray reading of the commercial, with a deconstruction of the writing.

The commercial, which some Republicans have criticized, seemed geared toward the 99 percent. And it repeatedly used pronouns that signified a shared experience: “we,” “our” and “us.”

The short sentences throughout the piece gave more weight to each word, and made it easier for viewers to process the message.

“A series of short sentences heightens the emotional passage of a message,” my colleague Roy Peter Clark told me. “There are more full stops and nanopauses, which allow the mind to reflect and that suggests what’s being said is serious. Longer sentences have a different effect; they speed us through a landscape or argument.”

The commercial hadn’t circulated prior to the Super Bowl, and it wasn’t clear what it was advertising until about halfway through. This added an element of surprise, Thompson said, and made the commercial more compelling.

He said it also helped that the commercial “centered itself emotionally in Detroit” — home to an industry that’s made a comeback and that’s central to America’s identity.

“The Super Bowl really does emphasize what an automobile-centered culture this is, and right smack in the middle of it we get this essay about how the automotive industry will rise again,” Thompson said by phone. “That America was once a manufacturing and production power and can be so again — that’s a pretty seductive message.”

Eastwood was a good fit for the commercial. We saw his Dirty Harry, no-nonsense character come out, and it was easy to make the connection between the commercial and “Gran Torino,” a 2008 Eastwood film that tells the story of a retired factory worker in Detroit.

“With Clint Eastwood, the ad makers were able to evoke two conflicting sets of metaphors or patterns — the first is the tough guy American embodied in the gun slinging cowboy of his earliest days,” Clark said. “But he’s also a Hollywood icon, which is one of the cultural signifiers of liberal values — openness, creativity and support for liberal causes.”

Eastwood also opposed the auto bailout and supported U.S. Sen. John McCain in his campaign for the presidency against then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Late Monday, Eastwood made it clear that he’s “not supporting any politician at this time.” His agent reiterated that the ad was not intended to be political.

The ad was written by Kevin Jones, Smith Henderson and Matthew Dickman, copywriters at the Portland-based Wieden+Kennedy agency.

Correction: The copywriters were originally misidentified in this post, based on information that appeared in the Oregonian.

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    That’s a good point, John. Visuals — and the way they were paired with words — also helped make the commercial effective.

    ~Mallary

  • JohnF61794

    You can’t give all the credit to the writing. Strong visuals play a major role in this commercial. The images pull you in and take you along for the ride. The big shadow up front, the mysterious silhouetted figure talking, the camera moving across skylines and down the street….The images are at least 50 percent of why the spot has staying power.