By Ben Klayman and Jennifer Saba
DETROIT/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chrysler Group LLC was once again one of the big winners in the Super Bowl ad battle, scoring with a military-themed spot narrated by Oprah Winfrey and another highlighting farmers that underscored the automaker's attempts to rehabilitate its image by playing to viewers' patriotism.
The commercials Chrysler aired during Sunday's Super Bowl continued a winning trend that started two years ago with a spot featuring Eminem and last year's popular two-minute ad starring Clint Eastwood.
"Chrysler has now identified itself with an auteur style," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "You can spot a Chrysler ad from a quarter of the game away."
Chrysler has used the last three Super Bowls as a canvas to reinvent its image after emerging from bankruptcy in 2009 under the control of Italy's Fiat SpA. This year's ads saluted U.S. troops and farmers as a way to tout the Jeep and Ram truck brands. Both ads scored highly in media polls after the game.
"Chrysler is really focused on building their brands on an emotional level," said Tim Calkins, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management who oversees an annual Super Bowl ad review panel.
The Jeep ad entitled "Whole Again" - which encouraged support of U.S. troops returning home from duty overseas and was narrated by Winfrey - scored one of only six grades of "A" in the Northwestern panel.
The ad ran during halftime immediately after the performance by singer Beyonce, in the same spot where the company received raves last year for Eastwood's "Halftime in America" commercial. The Ram truck's "Farmer" spot ran during the fourth quarter.
Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne flew about 10 hours from meetings in Europe so he could attend a company party at a bar, where senior management and their families watched the ads being aired during the Super Bowl.
The company said in its 2011 annual report that the improved brand equity generated by such campaigns as the Eminem commercial, which touted the comeback of Detroit while showing its American-made Chrysler 200 sedan, have helped boost demand for higher-profit vehicles.
While Chrysler may be controlled by an Italian company, Marchionne assured Detroit radio station WJR in a Monday interview that the automaker "is as American as it was when it was founded and it will stay that way forever.
"Those commercials, by the way, as much as I think they're important for the brands and for the positioning of the group are equally important for the re-grounding of our own people," added Marchionne, who was heavily involved in the development of the Eminem ad two years ago.
Chrysler did not immediately answer questions about how the ads were created.
TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW
Super Bowl advertisers paid CBS Corp, which broadcast the Baltimore Ravens victory over the San Francisco 49ers, an average of $4 million for a 30-second spot.
Even with discounts, Chrysler spent more than $20 million for its two ads, Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate estimated. That would be up from the $14.6 million and $12.4 million Kantar Media estimated the No. 3 U.S. automaker spent on Super Bowl ads in 2012 and 2011.
The focus on Jeep and Ram trucks during the NFL game was natural given that Chrysler's launch of its Dodge Dart small car has underperformed expectations, said IHS Automotive analyst Mike Wall. "You really want to push your strengths right now."
Last year, Eastwood intoned that Chrysler's turnaround could be used as an example for the United States as it struggled with high unemployment and slow economic growth.
"They had a very tough act to follow with Clint Eastwood," Horizon Media's Adgate said. "It puts in the minds of viewers that Chrysler's back ... that through all the financial difficulties that company has had, they're still here and making cars."
Chrysler's ads aligned with its brands, analysts said. The Jeep spot aligned with the U.S. military - fitting given the brand's birth as a military vehicle during World War Two - while the Ram truck matched up with the tough farmers.
Chrysler is one of the few companies that use two-minute ads and it has not resorted to humor in its messages, a strategy most Super Bowl advertisers use, analysts said. Most TV commercials run between 30 seconds - particularly during the Super Bowl when rates are so expensive - and a minute.
The Jeep ad was created by Detroit's GlobalHue, which has been Jeep's agency since 2009, while the Ram truck ad was handled by Dallas-based The Richards Group, which has handled the truck account since late 2009.
The Ram truck ad, which included a soundtrack by radio commentator Paul Harvey from a 1978 speech about farmers, was the most talked about Super Bowl ad on Twitter and Facebook in the 45 minutes after it aired, according to Bluefin Labs, which tracks consumer sentiment about TV commercials via social media.
The Jeep ad ranked 14th in the Bluefin poll, but had a higher rate of positive comments, 40 percent to 38 percent. The Eastwood ad last year ranked No. 2 with a 59 percent positive rating.
The two ads this year ranked in the top five in USA Today's Ad Meter results, and in the top 10 among the most searched Super Bowl ads on Yahoo.
Keeping up that kind of performance gets tougher every year, Marchionne told WJR. "I'm really worried now about 2014."
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall and Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit; Editing by Peter Lauria, Martin Howell, Eric Walsh and Andrew Hay)