The most talked-about advertisement of the Super Bowldid not have a barely clothed supermodel, a cute puppy or a smart-aleck baby. It was a cinematic two-minute commercial 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 ad doesn’t have a political message. ... It is about American spirit, pride and job growth.” "
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. In the late summer, Fordshowed a documentary-style commercial in which a customer asserted that he was not going to buy a “car that was bailed out by our government.” Ford was solvent enough that it did not need the loans given to Chrysler and General Motors.
Ford pulled the commercial, but said it did so only in the normal course of its advertising rotation.
Other ads have proved just as problematic for the president’s message that economic resurgence is around the corner, if not already under way. An Audi commercial painted a picture of the United States as a Depression-era wasteland where “over 100,000 miles of highways and bridges are in disrepair”; shattered televisions littered the streets, and rusty pickup trucks left trails of used tires as they dragged their way, apparently, to the junkyard.
In a recent commercial for Sears, a young couple and their real estate agent were shown touring what was clearly a foreclosed house in need of new appliances — apparently because the originals had been stripped.
Though Chrysler says it was not seeking political gain with the ad, it was certainly attuned to the sensitivities. In one scene that used footage from protests outside the Wisconsin State Capitol, signs bearing pro-union messages were edited out.
Officials speaking on behalf of Chrysler and Mr. Eastwood said he is donating to charity whatever money would have gone to him for filming the ad.
Democrats also dismissed the notion that the ad amounted to political payback. Steve Rattner, a former adviser to Mr. Obama on the auto bailout, called that idea a “conspiracy theory.” Referring to Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler’s chief executive, Mr. Rattner said, “He doesn’t need anything from the government at this point.”
Even some Republican advertising strategists said they failed to make the political connection to Mr. Obama.
“To the extent that anything that sounds good about the economy might also sound good for the president is an outcome,” said Steve Grand, who creates ads for Republican candidates and political groups. “But I don’t think that was the intention.”
Mark McKinnon, Mr. Bush’s former advertising strategist, noted that the ad’s message was ambiguous enough that it could be construed as helping Mr. Romney. “It’s half time in America,” he said. “And we are way behind, and we need a new quarterback.”
Brooks Barnes, Jackie Calmes and Stuart Elliott contributed reporting.