Tea party movement's energy, anger make it target for admakers

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In the ad, a line of British redcoats kneel in the field, muskets raised, waiting to gun down the approaching Colonial insurgents. A lonely violin plays in the background. It's a perfect election-year spot for our time. Any second now, the candidate will appear to wax patriotic, pay tribute to the Founders and decry the current direction of the nation.

Only this is no campaign ad, which becomes very apparent when a Dodge Challenger suddenly comes barreling out of the trees, kicking up dust, with a humungous American flag sticking out the window and Gen. Washington behind the wheel. The redcoats scatter like terrified mice. "Here's a couple of things America got right," the tough-guy narrator says. "Cars -- and freedom."

Has Chrysler gone tea party?

Sort of. There's nothing new about patriotic commercials, especially near the Fourth of July. But Dodge's "Freedom" ad is a little different, with its direct appeal to the rebellious themes that define the "tea party" movement. Marketing consultants say the ad is one indication that the movement's anger and energy have become part of the cultural conversation, making it a natural target for admakers.

It isn't difficult to see why Chrysler would want to aim an ad at the tea party set. Its demographic -- older, more conservative Americans -- overlaps with a significant segment of Chrysler's traditional customer base. Many of those potential buyers were not pleased that the Detroit automaker received more than $7 billion in federal bailout money last year. Anger about the bailouts is a favorite tea party topic.

"People who are closely identified with the tea party movement feel very much this sense of betrayal," said J. Walker Smith, executive vice president of the Futures Company, a market research firm. "They feel it toward Wall Street; they feel it toward the automobile industry; they feel it toward President Obama; they feel it toward the Republican Party. They feel very much betrayed by a lot of the institutions and people they have invested their trust in. This creates a s ituation for a lot of companies as they try to navigate how best to appeal to consumers in this environment."

Smith characterizes the mood as "consumer outrage," and he doesn't view it as exclusive to the tea party -- or to political conservatives in general. Liberal anger toward President George W. Bush, primarily about the Iraq war, defined the 2008 election cycle. Today, Americans of all political stripes are angry at the oil firm BP and the federal government because of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The trick for corporations and advertisers is to tap into people's generally angry mood without too narrowly targeting one side of the political spectrum in a way that could . . . anger them.

"You have to be careful," said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who also conducts research for corporate clients. "If you segment things by party, then you're just cutting off a whole segment of the market."

A lot of companies are experimenting with ads that play generally to the public's current David-vs.-Goliath mood. Hewlett-Packard, the printer manufacturer, recently directed shoppers to its Web site, where they could calculate how much money they're wasting on printer ink. After auto executives were ridiculed last year for flying to congressional hearings on private jets, low-cost airline JetBlue promised fares that were "way, way, way less than the $5,300 an hour you used to pay for your private jet." And MillerCoors has run ads in which a beer-delivery man reclaims his brew from exclusive locations -- a high-priced nightclub, a baseball skybox -- that are out of reach of ordinary folks. "All right, boys," he says, "we're takin' back the high life!"

Chrysler appears to be trying to walk that line, too.

Spokeswoman Dianna Gutierrez declined to say whether the Challenger commercial -- which the company timed to appear during the World Cup soccer match between the United States and England -- was aimed at buyers who are sore about the bailout.

But, sensitive to the fact that taxpayers helped pay for the slick new ad, she said Chrysler saved money by using costumes left over from an old Mel Gibson movie.

Gutierrez also pointed to a less rowdy Chrysler ad, this one for the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which she described as being "deeply immersed in Americana." The spot celebrates that Jeeps are made in the United States. "As a people, we do well when we make good things, and not so well when we don't."

Smith, the market research executive, detects a strain of discontent even in that feel-good ad. He sees the Jeep spot as almost an apology -- for running the company poorly at the expense of customers, and ultimately taxpayers.

"And then they've wrapped that message in this patriotic appeal." Smith says. "And they've done that in order to tap into this outrage that's simmering just beneath the surface."

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