DETROIT — When DaimlerChrysler AG Chairman Dieter Zetsche is shown in an ad ripping out the suspension of some guy's Chrysler 300C to show off its German design, all the guy says is "Cool."
The ad, part of a series of television and radio spots that debuted nationwide July 1, pokes fun at the affable Zetsche.
But marketing experts and dealers say the campaign has been effective in getting across a serious message: That Chrysler's ties to Deutschland make it different from its domestic rivals.
"I think it's brilliant and long overdue for two companies that came together years ago, neither one of whom is setting the world on fire today," said Gary Stibel, chief executive of The New England Consulting Group, a marketing management consulting firm in Westport, Conn.
When Daimler-Benz AG and the Chrysler Corp. merged in November of 1998, the company was reluctant to tout its German ties, said Jason Vines, vice president of communications for the Chrysler Group.
Although it promoted German engineering to the press, the company didn't advertise it, even though the idea was kicked around as far back as 2001, Vines said.
As the domestics fought for market share with incentives, it was more important to get the discount message out rather than go for an image campaign, he said.
"Something like this takes quite a bit of intestinal fortitude," Vines said, "because you may not get immediate satisfaction."
He said the company has protected Mercedes as a premium brand by using its technology in Chrysler models in ways that customers don't see it.
Some of the "Ask Dr. Z" ads make fun of Zetsche's thick, distinctive mustache. In one, a young girl asks if the mustache is real, and a group of schoolchildren stands stone-faced as Zetsche jokes about building lower-pollution clean vehicles while standing in front of a bunch of muddy Jeeps.
"It's a joke," he says to the kids.
In all five television ads, Zetsche either gets in a blatant plug for Germany, or his German accent and a mention of DaimlerChrysler gets the message across with subtlety.
"It's the right person at the right time," says Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.
And right or wrong, experts say the American public for years has had the perception that cars and trucks designed overseas are better than those produced here. Chrysler, they say, should have taken advantage of that long ago.
"The American auto companies have trained people that their cars are not as reliable and not as good a value," Stibel said. "It's going to require a repositioning of these companies and their brands."
Stibel said the "Ask Dr. Z" campaign with Zetsche sets Chrysler apart from the rest of car advertising, which he said is "rather benign."
Bernacchi said that as the economy has become more globalized and as foreign automakers have set up plants in the U.S., thoughts of "Buy American" have waned because no one's really sure what that means.
"More and more, we ask those questions less and less," he said.
Plus, market research shows that people base their buying decisions on value and quality rather than where a product is made, he said.
Chrysler is just now starting to measure how effective the Zetsche ads are in the U.S. and Canada, the only places they are airing thus far.
Chrysler's U.S. sales dropped 15.5 percent in June compared with the same month of 2005, but the company has introduced employee discounts for all on most models in hopes of boosting July numbers.
At Big Valley Dodge in Van Nuys, Calif., customers haven't been talking much about Zetsche, but they are interested in German engineering, says Bob Gray, the general manager.
Because people have a positive image of German designs and Mercedes automobiles, the ads already have begun to attract younger clientele to Dodge, says Gray.
"The Dodge product was sort of, I think it went by the way of Oldsmobile and Buick" which have traditionally attracted older buyers, Gray said. "Now you're getting a little bit more of a younger group."