Advice to Chrysler: 'Dr. Z' is No Lee Iacocca

What were they thinking? For about two years now, Daimler-Chrysler (DCX) has been featuring an ad campaign starring their boss, CEO Dieter Zetsche , better known as “Dr. Z.” The problem? Dr. Z is an unsmiling, unfriendly, thickly accented German CEO.

Now, sometimes sourpusses can be appealing. Actor and FOX News financial analyst Ben Stein cracks me up in his TV, movie and advertising roles as a curmudgeonly schoolteacher or accountant. But in the case of Dr. Z, his character is too real to be laughed at as a caricature. You just feel uncomfortable watching the sour Dr. Z scolding adults and scaring children.

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The ad folks were most likely inspired by a successful ad campaign from the past, starring legendary Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca . It was Mr. Iacocca’s famous ad campaign that had much to do with rebuilding the public’s confidence in the company after it went bankrupt in the 1970s. If Iacocca could do it, why couldn’t Dr. Z?

Well for one thing, Dr. Z may have a heart of gold, but that just doesn’t come across on TV. Lee Iacocca was likeable and trustworthy. He made you feel comfortable and confident about Chrysler. And most important, he came across as a solid, all-American fatherly type: Serious and tough, but also capable of a hearty laugh and a lovable bear hug. Dr. Z comes across as the stereotype of a cold and humorless foreign technician, who you can’t understand, let alone buy a car from.

But did it work? Well, the car company just announced a $1.5 billion loss in the third quarter, so it didn’t help. Those responsible for the ad campaign are quick to point out that folks who bought Daimler-Chrysler cars said they were positively influenced by the ads. But there clearly weren’t enough of these folks. You can’t blame all the bad numbers on a bad ad with an unappealing CEO. But this was THE ad campaign of Chrysler. It cost the company $100 million. They were betting the house on it. And Chrysler’s bottom line dropped.

So how does a $100 million ad campaign based on a notably unappealing character get the nod? It probably wasn’t a tough sell. After all, the ad folks were selling the CEO of the company on the idea that he could become the company icon. Who wouldn’t want to think they have that kind of appeal? And once Dr. Z was sold on the idea, who was going to argue with him? Most CEOs are surrounded by folks ready to agree with just about anything the boss says. Just imagine someone piping up in the sales-pitch meeting: “No, boss, I think you’re too much of a sourpuss to sell our product.”

So why am I going off on a rant against a German guy I don’t even know? Well, first off, I’m not anti-German. My great-grandfather came here from Germany in the 1860s. And I’m not against foreigners; I married one (though she’s since become a proud U.S. citizen). And I’m not against foreign companies that sell a decent product.

I am against policies based more on courting favor with the boss than improving sales. ‘Course, they may have had some strategy beyond playing up to the boss. That’s just a guess on my part. But why else would ad folks put a foreign spokesman stage center to represent a quintessential American product in a political atmosphere charged with an anti-foreign bias?

I wish Dr. Z the best. But if you don’t see him advertising his product on American TV anymore, perhaps it’s because common sense finally won out over apple-polishing at Daimler/Chrysler. Maybe now is the time to buy one of their cars!

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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.