Do Corporate Leaders Make Good Pitchmen?
LYNN NEARY, host:
Mr. Clinton is spending this week surrounded by a virtual who's who of global business and political leaders. Normally they are the ones called on to be stars - the board chairman or CEOs - whose charisma is supposed to seal deals or scare off competition. But as automaker DaimlerChrysler is learning, banking on the charisma of an individual at the top can be tricky. The company has announced it will cut car and truck production by nearly 24 percent this quarter because it has too much unsold inventory. That's despite a quirky ad campaign featuring the company's chairman.
NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at the difficulties of using CEOs as pitchmen.
(Soundbite of a Chrysler commercial)
Mr. LEE IACOCCA (Former Chairman, Chrysler Corporation): The new Chrysler Corporation introduces the K-cars, the American way to beat the pump.
JIM ZARROLI: When Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1980s, Lee Iacocca helped turn the company around with a series of TV commercials. This summer, Chrysler was in trouble again, and the company - now DaimlerChrysler - once again turned to its chief executive. But this time the results were a little different.
(Soundbite of DaimlerChrysler commercial)
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): Excuse me, Dr. Z. A quick question: What have been the benefits of the merger between Daimler-Benz and Chrysler?
Dr. DIETER ZETSCHE (Chief Executive, DaimlerChrysler): Okay, get in.
ZARROLI: The ad starred Dr. Z, or Dieter Zetsche, Daimler Chrysler's chief executive. Tall and bald, with a bushy mustache, Zetsche was unmistakably German from his thick accent to his brusque no-nonsense demeanor.
(Soundbite of Daimler Chrysler commercial)
Dr. ZETSCHE: Every Chrysler uses the best of American and German engineering and design.
ZARROLI: Dr. Z is the kind of quirky figure who probably sounded like he'd make a great pitchman at an ad agency presentation. But AdWeek critic Barbara Lippert, for one, hates the commercials. Lippert notes that Dieter Zetsche has a reputation as a dynamic executive.
Ms. BARBARA LIPPERT (Columnist, AdWeek; AdvertisingAge): And I couldn't believe that he would allow himself to be used in this way, because the commercials were so bad and they made no sense. And they were just this hodgepodge of him running around and offering six different things and talking about four different cars. And it was so frenetic.
ZARROLI: Chrysler insists that the campaign has succeeded. Spokeswoman Carrie McElwee points out that some six million questions came into the askdrz.com Web site.
Ms. CARRIE MCELWEE (Spokeswoman, DaimlerChrysler): From the very beginning, the whole underlying goal of the campaign was to generate awareness of our product and generate interest. And we've done that.
ZARROLI: But Chrysler suspended the ads as of September 1st and isn't sure whether its bringing them back. Whatever happens, the case of Dr. Z illustrates some of the challenges of using a CEO in an ad campaign. Brad Adgate, senior vice president at Horizon Media, says many attempts by companies to turn their CEOs into pitchmen have fallen flat.
Mr. BRAD ADGATE (Senior Vice President, Horizon Media): It's one thing to give a speech in front of a bunch of investors that's prepared and has been rehearsed. But to do a commercial as a CEO, there aren't too many people who have successfully done that.
ZARROLI: Adgate says it's a rare CEO who can really connect with viewers on a visceral level.
Mr. ADGATE: I think it comes back to charisma. I think it's an art. I think you have to come across in a way that people can relate to you, that viewers think you're honest, that, you know, you're not just a businessman but you also believe in the product.
(Soundbite of Wendy's commercial)
Unidentified Man #2: Now that Wendy's is sponsoring the NHL, Dave is heading for the rink.
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): Here's your skates, Dave.
Mr. DAVE THOMAS (Founder, Wendy's): We play on ice?
Unidentified Man #3: What a kidder.
ZARROLI: One of the most successful CEO pitchmen was Dave Thomas of Wendy's, who made hundreds of commercials before his death in 2002.
(Soundbite of Wendy's commercial)
Mr. Thomas: Maybe we ought to have lunch first.
ZARROLI: Thomas had a homey, self-effacing quality that people felt comfortable with. Barbara Lippert of AdAge says viewers had no trouble believing that he got his start flipping hamburgers somewhere. And she says, like Lee Iacocca, Thomas soon became the face of his company.
Ms. LIPPERT: In those cases they're both such, you know, solid Americans, you know, that it brought stability or meaning to things that otherwise didn't have them.
ZARROLI: Lippert also says audiences can relate to people like Dave Thomas or Frank Perdue, because they were entrepreneurs who built their companies from the ground up.
Ms. LIPPERT: But somebody like Dr. Z comes along because corporate elevated him in the Porsche portion or whatever. You know, it just doesn't seem organic to us.
ZARROLI: Lippert says that in the Chrysler ads audiences couldn't tell whether Dr. Z was a real person or played by an actor. CEO pitchmen present another problem too. In an era of corporate accounting scandals and eight-figure paychecks, CEOs are no longer the hero figures they sometimes were in Lee Iacocca's day. And any company that attaches its image too closely to a particular executive is taking a risk.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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