DETROIT -- So there he was. Self described as "a French employee of an Italian automaker living in Detroit," Olivier Francois was holed up in a hotel in a snowstorm during his first Michigan winter, trying to get a handle on U.S. car buyers by watching American TV.
First take for Francois, now the chief marketing officer for Fiat and Chrysler and global head of the Fiat brand, after a weekend of local television? Based on ad weight, the two biggest American industries must be "vinyl replacement windows and automobiles," and "Americans will buy anything with a price that ends in 'ninety-nine,'" he quipped Tuesday at an Automotive Press Association luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club.
Back in 2009, focusing on just the Chrysler brand, it was a tough proposition: a limited ad budget and a struggling brand burdened with the stink of bankruptcy.
But since then Francois has made a marketing splash for Chrysler Group brands.
There was the 2011 Super Bowl two-minute "Born of Fire" blockbuster with Eminem and this year's Clint Eastwood sequel, "Halftime in America." A Dodge spot showed George Washington driving a roaring Challenger to rout a platoon of British redcoat musketeers.
Fiat was relaunched in America with spots first featuring singer Jennifer Lopez, followed by a "Seduction," with a stunning Romanian model melting a male onlooker into a puddle.
Patterns emerge. Vivid imagery and music. Commercials that tell a story, with the brand appearing late. Big stars, especially ones like Eastwood and Eminem known for not doing commercials. And intense use of social media like YouTube to create brand impressions for free, allowing Chrysler brands to limit media spending. Ads that appear at big moments.
"I tell my staff, don't shoot for the perfect message, shoot for the perfect moment," Francois says.
"Born of Fire" ran once at two minutes, and a few times after that in cut-down form. But thanks to social media, it has been viewed 17 million times. Same with the J-Lo spot: 40 million views online. "Seduction" was originally scheduled only for online viewing, but Fiat dealers clamored for it as a spot.
There's a new Fiat Abarth spot featuring Charlie Sheen. Perhaps you've already seen it.
No, it won't appear on TV until Thursday. But on YouTube, 1.5 million viewers have already seen "House Arrest," featuring a 500 Abarth zipping through the hallways of a mansion during a big party before Sheen pops out wearing an ankle bracelet monitor and asking the "Seduction" model, "What do I get for good behavior?"
The lesson from all this? There have always been a lot of fun creative auto ads, but usually wedged between a lot of same-old, same-old cars-on-tracks, cars-on-sunny roads, cars-on curvy-roads and all the cars-at-Cal's-your-pal dealer stuff.
Francois remembers that snowy weekend and the eye-glazing blur of the car spots running into the vinyl-window spots.
But now if you make an entertaining car commercial, people search the Internet to watch it and you don't have to pay as much to run it in conventional media.
Francois knows that.
"I feel sorry for the media, for television and cable," he says.
Nope, auto marketing ain't what it used to be. And I like it.