By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Before he emerged in a controversial Super Bowl ad as the gravelly voice of Chrysler’s resurgence, Clint Eastwood was a critic of the government bailout that saved the U.S. automaker.
“We shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies,” actor, director and Academy Award winner Eastwood told the Los Angeles Times in November 2011. “If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.”
The two-minute Chrysler ad “Halftime in America” won attention for its focus on American resilience, but raised eyebrows for the way critics said it echoed one of the central themes of President Barack Obama’s reelection bid.
Eastwood, a longtime Republican who now describes himself as a libertarian, told Fox News on Monday he was “certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama.”
The ad was meant as a message “about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it,” Eastwood said, according to a transcript on Foxnews.com.
“If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it,” the actor added.
The White House, which said it was not involved in making the ad, did say that the message highlighted the “simple fact” that Obama had rescued the U.S. auto industry.
“He was not willing to allow - did not believe it was necessary to allow - the American automobile industry to collapse and disappear,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
Eastwood’s manager Leonard Hirshan said the actor has not changed his views on the auto bailout.
“He did a commercial that had nothing to do with politics,” Hirshan said. “What he did was talk about America. If anything, this was a pro American commercial not a Chrysler commercial. Chrysler just sponsored what he had to say.”
Chrysler has not said how much the Super Bowl ad cost or how much Eastwood was paid. A 30-second spot in this year’s game televised by NBC cost $3.5 million.
In the ad, which aired during Sunday’s Super Bowl football game, Eastwood, 81, gave what amounted to a pep talk to an America still mired in hard times. The ad pointed to Detroit’s resurgence since the taxpayer-funded bankruptcy restructuring of both Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Co in 2009.
“Detroit’s showing us it can be done,” Eastwood said. “And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.”
In an interview with Detroit radio station WJR, Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne emphasized the TV spot was not meant to be seen as a political statement. Rather, the ad was intended to showcase “the resilience of America.”
“It has zero political content,” Marchionne said Monday. “We are as apolitical as you can make us.”
But veteran Republican strategist Karl Rove said he was “offended” by the ad, which comes about 10 months before the November presidential election.
“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 tax dollars to buy corporate advertising,” Rove said on Fox News.
The bailout was initiated by President George W Bush in the waning days of his administration and continued under President Obama. Since then, both GM and Chrysler have begun to mend. Chrysler, now majority-owned by Italian automaker Fiat SpA , forecast its annual operating profit would rise 50 percent to $3 billion in 2012.
It was the second straight year Chrysler ran a two-minute spot during the most-expensive advertising slot in American television. Last year’s spot featured Detroit-raised rapper Eminem and launched the slogan “Imported from Detroit.”
This year’s advertisement was filmed over two weeks in January with scenes shot in New Orleans and California. Footage from Detroit was used from Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” ad from 2011’s Super Bowl. It was directed by David Gordon Green, who also directed the 2008 stoner comedy Pineapple Express.
Traffic on Twitter showed overwhelmingly positive comments for the advertisement, which was the last one shown before the start of the second half of Sunday’s game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots.
But the ad “fell flat” with consumers, Edmunds.com said, citing an analysis of traffic on its website. Chrysler page views increased 13 percent in the hour after the ad was aired. But Hyundai Motor Co’s page views rose 134 percent and Honda Motor Co’s Acura page views jumped 110 percent. Interest in Fiat shot up more than 2,000 percent after the Fiat 500 Abarth ad aired.
“The ad tried to capture the same mood that made last year’s commercial so effective, but America’s state of mind right now is different from where it was last year,” Edmunds.com Vice Chairman Jeremy Anwyl said. “Using the same formula, Chrysler didn’t elicit the same emotional response.”