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The Boss for Super Bowl, how a marketing hotshot roped in stars

Olivier Francois of Jeep got Bruce Springsteen to feature in his first-ever commercial on Super Bowl night. Earlier, he also secured rights to use Carl Sagan’s famous ‘pale blue dot’ passage. How did he do it?

February 12, 2021 / 03:09 PM IST
On February 8, Bruce Springsteen appeared in his first-ever ad on Super Bowl night for Jeep. File image

On February 8, Bruce Springsteen appeared in his first-ever ad on Super Bowl night for Jeep. File image

In nearly five decades as a celebrity, Bruce Springsteen never did a commercial. It was one of his principles.

“Bruce is not for sale. He’s not even for rent,” Olivier Francois, a renowned auto industry marketer who is the Chief Marketing Officer at Stellantis, and was earlier at Fiat Chrysler, told Variety.com.

That changed on February 8, during the Super Bowl telecast, when Springsteen, 71, appeared in his first-ever ad. It was for Jeep, now under the Stellantis umbrella. The ad was the fruition of Francois’s nearly 10-year pursuit of the rock music legend.

In 2019, Francois had managed another coup. He got permission from Ann Druyan, the widow of astronomer Carl Sagan, to use Sagan’s famous description of earth, “the pale blue dot” of the galaxy, for a Jeep advertisement.

The Springsteen spot could not have been a typical car commercial, given who he is. Called ‘The Middle’, it addresses a bigger message about the issues facing the US. A contemplative Springsteen is shown driving to a chapel in Lebanon, Kansas, the geographical centre of the US.

Close

“It’s no secret that the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between serving and seizing, between our freedom and our fear,” Springsteen says in the narration. “Freedom is not the property of just the fortunate few. It belongs to us all.”

The film ends with The Boss driving off, saying," There is hope on the road up ahead.”

Francois called getting Springsteen a “triumph of perseverance and stubbornness”. But it was gentle perseverance, respectful of his target’s stature and space. There’s a lesson in it for marketing professionals.

It was nearly a decade ago that Francois thought of Springsteen as a good fit for Jeep. He had no idea of the star’s “no commercials” rule.

“I thought he (Springsteen) could be a good candidate, and that is when I met Jon (Landau, Springsteen’s manager), who very nicely, kindly, explained to me that this will never happen,” Francois told Variety. “He starts telling me all these stories, how (former Chrysler CEO) Lee Iacocca reached out really offering him a ton of money to just get a song in a commercial, with Bruce always turning down every offer.”

Still, Francois stayed in touch with Landau.

Born to run

"From time to time, not presuming too much, I would try to pitch some ideas,” he said. “They would turn me down — always. Obviously, I didn’t want to abuse my relationship. But I’m a car salesman, so I can’t help but try to sell my ideas. It never worked. It never worked.”

But this year, it did. And things happened quickly, as if the commercial was born to run.

Early in January, Francois got a script from one of the company’s ad agencies which was worth an approach to Springsteen.

“Don’t take it as a push,” Francois messaged Landau. “I know he’s not going to do it. But who knows?”

Landau said he would suggest it to Springsteen, but still called it “beyond a long shot.”

Surprise. It’s just February and the commercial has already been pitched, filmed and aired. Springsteen thought the script was spiritual, prayer-like and was on board.

He wanted it done a certain way, of course.

“A celebrity you pay, and a legend you have to respect,” Francois said. “They are not going to put in their mouth one single word they are not deeply motivated to say, so we are not working with these people, we are working for these people. You are almost somehow their marketing agency, their agent, their partner, their friend. It’s based on respect. It’s not based on money. It took me 10 years to get him in, but once he was in, he was all in.”

With Sagan, Jeep needed to do more than create an impressive campaign. His wife Ann Druyan told them they had to make an electric vehicle first.

Going electric was a major shift for a company not historically inclined to fuel-free cars. Francois relayed Druyan’s terms to Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, a legend in the car industry. By now even the old-school Marchionne had seen the point of electric cars. He also liked the pale blue dot concept and gave the go-ahead for an electric SUV.

In 2019, the Jeep 4xe was ready. Francois called Druyan, saying, “Ann, we made you a car.”
Akshay Sawai
first published: Feb 8, 2021 01:25 pm

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