The most talked-about advertisement of the Super Bowl did not have a barely clothed supermodel, a cute puppy or a smart-aleck baby. It was a cinematic two-minute commercial created by Wieden and Kennedy, featuring Clint Eastwood, an icon of American brawn, likening Chrysler’s comeback to the country’s own economic revival.
And within 12 hours of running, it became one of the loudest flashpoints yet in the early re-election campaign of President Obama, providing a reminder, as if one were needed, that in today’s polarized political climate even a tradition as routine as a football championship can be thrust into a partisan light.
Some conservative critics saw the ad as political payback and accused the automaker of handing the president a prime-time megaphone in front of one of the largest television audiences of the year.
Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who served as President George W. Bush’s top political adviser, said Chrysler was trying to settle a debt to the Obama administration for rescuing Detroit carmakers with billions of dollars in loans.
“The leadership of auto companies feel they need to do something to repay their political patronage,” Mr. Rove said on Fox News, where viewers of the network’s morning program “Fox & Friends” rated the ad their least favorite of the game. “It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”
David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief political strategist, seized on the commercial almost immediately. He sent out a Twitter message shortly after it ran, declaring, “Powerful spot.” And, as if to underscore the Obama campaign’s lack of involvement in it, “Did Clint shoot that, or just narrate it?”
The White House cast the ad, which was accompanied by similar full-page newspaper advertisements on Monday, as an affirmation of the president’s economic policies. Asked by a joking reporter whether the commercial counted as an “in-kind contribution” from Mr. Eastwood, Jay Carney, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, said it merely laid out the facts, and indeed the ad resembled a main theme of the president’s State of the Union address last month.
“This president,” Mr. Carney said, “made decisions that were not very popular at the time that were guided by two important principles: 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.”
The ad’s title, “It’s Halftime in America,” along with its uplifting and inspirational script, recalled one of the most famous campaign ads ever produced, President Ronald Reagan’s re-election year “Morning in America” ad of 1984 — albeit with a post-recession twist.
Mr. Eastwood, who narrates the new ad and appears among images of molten steel and city streets, says: “How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win?” He concludes, looking straight into the camera: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do, the world’s going to hear the roar of our engines.”
In an e-mail, Mr. Eastwood said politics were not in the equation. “The ad doesn’t have a political message,” he said. “It is about American spirit, pride and job growth.” Mr. Eastwood, a former mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., who usually voted Republican, has acknowledged recently having a political change of heart.
Chrysler similarly denied that politics were at play. But that ignored the fact that as a major beneficiary of a government loan program derided by many conservatives, whatever it does over the course of the next nine months will be scrutinized in a political light. Based on rates NBC was quoting advertisers, the two-minute spot cost Chrysler about $12.8 million.
Shown before an audience of more than 110 million people, according to Nielsen, the advertisement came at a fortunate time for Mr. Obama’s re-election team. It dovetailed with a positive jobs report on Friday and the rolling start of a general election campaign that it assumes will be run against Mitt Romney. (Mr. Romney opposed the auto bailout, as did Mr. Eastwood in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in November.)
But the conservative outcry over the spot brought to the foreground the tricky politics of the auto industry rescue, which has cut both ways for the Obama administration. What do you think.