DETROIT -- During a June 27 meeting at the Chrysler group headquarters, a roomful of executives kicked around ideas for a celebrity TV pitchman. Marketing chief Joe Eberhardt made a stunning nomination: Lee Iacocca.
"There was a silent pause," recalls Gary Topolewski, chief creative officer at BBDO Detroit, Chrysler's ad agency. "Everyone looked at each other and thought, 'Wow, that would be talked about. Can we really do that?'
"Then it was like, 'Yeah, let's think it through.' There were no naysayers. We loved that."
The idea was so secret that Chrysler's creative ad teams worked on scripts for two days before the company approached Iacocca and actor Jason Alexander, who appears with Iacocca in one of the three new TV commercials.
Even Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche initially "didn't know what we were cooking up," says George Murphy, the Chrysler group's senior vice president of global brand marketing.
So began Chrysler's dramatic reconciliation with the company's former boss, rescuer from bankruptcy and public face.
Chrysler group executives looked last month at the huge sales increases General Motors was racking up with the GM Employee Discount for Everyone promotion. They realized Chrysler might have to "ride the wave" GM had created, Murphy says.
Over the week of June 20, Murphy, Eberhardt and Jason Vines, the Chrysler group's vice president of communications, asked Topolewski to propose ad campaigns that could accompany a Chrysler employee-discount incentive plan. The Chrysler group calls its program Employee Pricing Plus.
Early in the morning on June 27, the four men met to discuss 15 ideas.
"We didn't want to do the same old thing," Topolewski says. "You get tired of cars screaming around curvy roads and an announcer talking about the deal."
The four executives decided they wanted TV commercials that combined humor with excitement about the incentive program, while keeping a focus on the quality of Chrysler group vehicles.
They considered -- and rejected -- commercials that emphasized product information or offered customer testimonials. They ruled out ads featuring Chrysler employees as too similar to GM's campaign.
They tossed around the names of celebrities and sports stars -- and even Zetsche -- as a commercial spokesperson. Then Eberhardt mentioned Iacocca's name.
Former Chrysler Corp. chief Lee Iacocca appears in three new TV commercials for the Chrysler group. In the first, actor Jason Alexander utters Iacocca's classic line: "If you can find a better car, buy it."
"The first question was: Would he do it?" Murphy says. "It wasn't: Would he fit the creative? Because when his name came up, everyone harkened back to the fact that he could give a convincing sales pitch."
Iacocca became a household name in the early 1980s when he made TV commercials for Chrysler's K car. He challenged consumers: "If you can find a better car, buy it." The new commercials revive that memorable tag line.
For two days after the June 27 meeting, Julie Roehm, Chrysler group director of marketing communications, and Topolewski's creative team at BBDO worked nearly around the clock. They produced scripts and storyboards for seven possible TV commercials.
Murphy, Topolewski, Eberhardt and Vines reviewed the scripts June 30. They met for two hours with Zetsche the next morning.
"We all agreed we'd go ahead with a campaign featuring Employee Pricing Plus and if we could we should try to use Lee in three to four of the executions," Murphy says.
Murphy assigned Vines, who once wrote jokes for Iacocca's speeches, to contact him.
Vines had last dealt with Iacocca in 1998, when he unsuccessfully tried to recruit Iacocca to do commercials for Vines' then-employer, Nissan Division.
Iacocca had grown estranged from many Chrysler executives in the mid-1990s, when he backed an unsuccessful takeover bid for Chrysler by billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian.
But in a phone conversation on July 1, Vines said Iacocca was immediately receptive to the idea of returning to his old company. He said Iacocca told him: "Jason, what are you trying to get me into now?"
Vines and BBDO sent Iacocca and Alexander scripts for the proposed commercials. By the end of the day, they had agreed.
"Lee seemed very willing," Topo-lewski says. "Down deep he bleeds Chrysler."
Iacocca did not respond to requests for comment.
Although Murphy would not discuss the terms of Chrysler's deal, he says the company is not paying Iacocca to appear in the commercials. Instead, Chrysler will donate $1 for each vehicle it sells the rest of this year to the Iacocca Foundation for diabetes research. Iacocca's first wife, Mary, died from complications of diabetes in 1983.
Chrysler shot one of the commercials on Tuesday, July 5, in New York and the other two in Nantucket, Mass., on Thursday, July 7. The commercials were scheduled to start airing over the weekend.
The commercials use Iacocca to comic and ironic effect. The first commercial essentially casts Alexander as George Costanza, the nebbish he played on the sitcom "Seinfeld." Iacocca's curmudgeonly performance is reminiscent of Costanza's boss on the show, George Steinbrenner.
Alexander, not Iacocca, utters the tag line: "If you can find a better car, buy it."
Murphy says the Chrysler group and its local dealer associations are spending $75 million to buy TV commercial time this month. That is 30 percent more than a normal July, he says.
In addition to the TV commercials, the campaign will include print, Internet and radio advertising. Iacocca will not appear in those ads.
"We need to get the message out there quickly, so we need a very broad reach," Murphy says. "The combination of our spending and Lee make the $75 million look like $150 million, which is the kind of muscle GM was putting in for June."
Says Murphy: "We're a little more efficient."
You may e-mail Jamie LaReau at [email protected]