By Alexandra Bruell and Suzanne Vranica
Jeep's parent company had tried for more than a decade to persuade Bruce Springsteen to star in one of its commercials. Then this year, it finally landed the rock legend for the highest-profile of appearances: a two-minute ad during the Super Bowl.
It backfired quickly.
Just days after the commercial aired, the company removed it from YouTube and other platforms following reports that Mr. Springsteen had been charged with driving while intoxicated last November.
Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a branding firm, said he had never seen a setback of this magnitude involving a Super Bowl ad. "The combination of Springsteen and breakthrough Super Bowl visibility makes this a one-of-a-kind black eye," he said.
The commercial, in which Mr. Springsteen narrated a somber plea for people to come together in the U.S., generated significant buzz before and after it aired during the game, which was watched by 96.4 million people. The spot was featured in many news articles including The Wall Street Journal, and several TV programs aired portions of the ad, likely generating tens of millions of dollars in free publicity for Jeep.
Jeep's parent company, Stellantis NV, said it first found out about the incident this week. A spokeswoman said the commercial's "message of community and unity" was as relevant as ever. "As is the message that drinking and driving can never be condoned."
According to court documents released Thursday, Mr. Springsteen was charged with driving while intoxicated on Nov. 14 after a law-enforcement officer saw him take a shot of tequila and start his motorcycle's engine.
The officer told Mr. Springsteen that alcohol consumption was prohibited where he was -- Sandy Hook, N.J., an area that includes a lighthouse and beaches. During a field sobriety test, Mr. Springsteen "took 45 total steps during the walk and turn instead of the instructed 18," according to a statement of probable cause, which also said he smelled strongly of alcohol "and had glassy eyes." The rock star wouldn't submit to a preliminary breath test.
Mr. Springsteen told the officer that he was planning to drive out of the park and said that he had two shots of tequila in 20 minutes, according to the statement, which also said that the 750 milliliter bottle of Patrón tequila was completely empty.
Mr. Springsteen's lawyer didn't respond to requests for comment Thursday. He will appear in federal court, likely by videoconference, later this month, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for New Jersey said.
Jeep didn't disclose how much it spent on the commercial or how much it paid Mr. Springsteen. The ad ran for two minutes during a game in which CBS charged as much as $5.5 million for 30 seconds, and the company has no plans to air it again on TV. An advertising lawyer estimated Mr. Springsteen's contract could be north of $10 million given that he had never appeared in a commercial before.
Marketers and ad agencies typically seek to include a so-called "morals clause" into a talent agreement, which gives the sponsor a way out if a person's conduct is deemed damaging to the brand. The advertising lawyer said it wouldn't be surprising if the parties didn't have a morals clause in an arrangement covering a single TV airing in the Super Bowl with an A-list celebrity. Stellantis didn't provide specifics.
Olivier François, global chief marketing officer at Stellantis -- the company recently formed from the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Peugeot maker PSA Group -- had spent more than a decade trying to cast Mr. Springsteen in ads, but the rock legend always resisted, Mr. François told the Journal before the Super Bowl. After seeing the concept from his agency for the new ad, Mr. François tried one more time, he said.
"Any time you use a celebrity or influencer, you're buying the person, their views, their history -- you're not just buying what they stand for in your commercial," said Judy John, global chief creative officer at public-relations giant Edelman. "You're instantly in the cultural conversation."
Ms. John said the news about Mr. Springsteen has now changed that conversation. "It overshadows the message," she said.
Stellantis isn't the first company to suffer fallout over a pricey commercial in the Super Bowl, advertising's biggest night of the year.
In 2011, Groupon Inc. ran a commercial featuring Timothy Hutton describing the plight of Tibetans. Mr. Hutton says in the spot that despite Tibet's issues, the people of Tibet can still "whip up an amazing fish curry." The ad was slammed for being offensive and Groupon pulled the spot.
Salesgenie.com, a company that helped small businesses with customer leads -- and has since been renamed -- pulled its 2008 Super Bowl ad from subsequent airings after it was criticized as racist. The animated commercial featured a panda couple speaking in Asian accents.
Companies have also decided to cut ties with celebrity endorsers including golfer Tiger Woods and cyclist Lance Armstrong to protect their brands from scandals and bad press.
While the Springsteen debacle could undermine the benefits that Jeep had expected to gain from its Super Bowl ad, recent controversies around other ad campaigns suggest that it won't hurt Jeep or Stellantis business in the long run, branding experts said.
Nike Inc., for example, took plenty of heat for an ad featuring former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick in an 2018 commercial -- but the shoe giant's sales rose 10% in the quarter following the ad's release.
Kate King contributed to this article.
Write to Alexandra Bruell at email@example.com and Suzanne Vranica at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 11, 2021 20:37 ET (01:37 GMT)Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.