What Springsteen’s DWI Arrest Means for Jeep’s Marketing

The incident, which was reported days after the brand’s Super Bowl ad, is embarrassing but likely won’t cause long-term damage, say experts

By E.J. Schultz. | Ad Age | Feb 11, 2021

After Jeep secured Bruce Springsteen for a Super Bowl ad, the brand and its marketing leader, Olivier Francois, seemed poised for another Big Game hit, following on a successful run of celeb-studded spots that have included Clint Eastwood, Eminem and Bill Murray.

But instead of taking a victory lap after landing the Boss, the brand is now detouring as it deals with fallout from reports of Springsteen’s DWI. Jeep acted quickly to pull the spot from YouTube on Wednesday in wake of reports that Springsteen was arrested Nov. 14 at Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and charged with DWI, reckless driving and consuming alcohol in a closed area.

The incident puts a damper on the much-hyped ad. But it will likely result in short-term embarrassment for the brand rather than long-term harm, especially since Jeep moved quickly to take the ad down, according to brand communications experts.

“As a car company, you can’t be seen in any way supporting driving under the influence,” says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University who studies Super Bowl ads.

“If Jeep wasn’t aware of [of the DWI], that is a miss,” he says. “They should have been aware that that was floating out there before they made him the star of a huge Super Bowl ad. If nothing else, his team should have brought that up and the Jeep team should have asked—is there anything that happened in the past few months that we need to be aware of?”

Asked on Wednesday if Jeep knew about the incident, the brand issued a statement that signaled it came as a surprise: “It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the details of a matter we have only read about and we cannot substantiate. But it’s also right that we pause our Big Game commercial until the actual facts can be established. Its message of community and unity is as relevant as ever. As is the message that drinking and driving can never be condoned.”

The spot, which was filmed in late January, came after Francois, chief marketing officer of Jeep-owner Stellantis, spent many years lobbying The Boss to appear in an ad. He finally broke through, securing approval earlier this year from Springsteen’s longtime manager and confidante, Jon Landau, a critical player in the rock icon’s inner circle. Now Francois, who has long put big-name stars in ads, is left dealing with the prospect that his biggest get was also his shortest one.

TMZ originally reported the DWI news on Wednesday, but countless mainstream publications followed up on it, inserting Jeep into a negative story at a time when it had planned to keep plugging the ad. The spot was originally intended to air only once, during the Super Bowl, according to a person familiar with the matter. The two-minutespot from Doner showed Springsteen making a plea for unity in the deeply divided country. It directed viewers to a special website called “The Road Ahead.” The site, which includes scenes from the ad but none of Springsteen, remains active, plugging the brand’s heritage while pushing new models and the brand’s electric vehicle ambitions.

The Boss was not expected to be in any future Jeep marketing, but the DWI incident robbed the brand of the chance to garner more buzz online from the ad, which had already amassed more than 37 million views on YouTube before it was pulled early Wednesday afternoon.

Still, brand experts say Jeep did the right thing to remove it. “They did make a decision fairly quickly—that was the path of least risk for them,” Karen Doyne, a crisis communications expert at Doyne Strategies, said in an interview. “No car company wants to be associated with the idea of drunk or irresponsible driving.”

On her LinkedIn page, she suggested the incident is a lesson to other brands: “I’ve counseled several companies whose celebrity endorsers have gotten into trouble, but this one is particularly sticky for Jeep given the link to drunk driving,” she wrote. “Bottom line: Crisis Plans should anticipate potential controversies involving celebrity spokespersons or other high-visibility endorsers (such as partners in charitable initiatives) so the company will be able to make decisions swiftly if the time comes. Don’t wait—as too many companies do—until your celebrity ends up in hot water and pulls your company in behind them.”

Another crisis communications expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “The only way this becomes a bigger issue for [Jeep] is if it were to come out that they knew about this … and that they somehow looked the other way. That would be very hard to overcome.”

More details emerged about the incident on Thursday. The Asbury Park Press reported that Springsteen was charged with the DWI after“having a shot of alcohol with fans after he rode to Sandy Hook on his motorcycle.” Citing an unnamed source, the newspaper reported that his blood-alcohol content was 0.02. “The legal threshold indicating intoxication for driving purposes in New Jersey is .08, which calls into question why Springsteen was even charged with driving while intoxicated,” the newspaper reported, quoting the same source.

But Fox News, citing statements of probable cause that it obtained, reports that Springsteen initially refused to take a preliminary breath test. Fox cites a statement from a park ranger alleging that “the Patron bottle that the shot was poured out of was completely empty (750ml),” adding that “I asked Springsteen if he was leaving and he confirmed that he was going to drive out of the park.”

Even before the negative PR around the DWI arrest, Jeep’s ad was not seen as a runaway hit, falling short of the nearly universal acclaim the brand got last year with its lighthearted Super Bowl ad starring Bill Murray reprising his role in “Groundhog Day.” Some critics took issue with the use of a Christian cross in the Springsteen ad as not speaking to all audiences, while other people have questioned the viability of people finding a middle ground in the current political environment.

The ad placed 12th on the USA Today Ad Meter. (The Bill Murray ad placed first last year.) In the annual Super Bowl ad review conducted by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, which measures the strategic effectiveness of ads, Jeep earned a very average “C” Score.

But The Harris Poll showed the spot as boosting Jeep’s brand equity, falling in the top half of that score among all Super Bowl advertisers.The ad led to an increase of 93% in web traffic to Jeep brand pages on online retail site cars.com. That placed the brand behind Cadillac (whose ad put a new spin on “Edward Scissorhands”) but ahead of Toyota.

Read the full story at Ad Age.