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  D.F.'s Column Archive

July 26, 2006

A Tale of Two Chairmen: Dr. Z and Mr. Lee


The chairman of Chrysler Corporation is starring in the company’s commercials. That much is not new. But just about everything else is, which is why I have a feeling it might work a little better this time.


Everyone who is old enough will of course remember Lee Iacocca in the 1980s starring in commercials selling Lee Iacocca – I mean, selling Chrysler cars. There’s Lee talking about safety. There’s Lee yelling at his executive team. There’s Lee standing next to the Statue of Liberty. Wait. I don’t think he mentioned Chrysler in that one. Well, anyway, there’s Lee!


Lee wrote a book, called Talking Straight, which is sort of like writing a book called No, Really, I Can Be Trusted, Really. He wrote a book called I Gotta Tell You. (Tell me what?) At one point, he appeared to be mobilizing to go to war against Japan. Apparently they dropped a bunch of cheap compact cars on Pearl Harbor. Hunker down, Hirohito! You’re dealing with Lido!


Lee was everywhere. Lee was going to run for president. Lee was the answer to every question ever asked, perhaps even “What smells?”


Lee never did conquer Japan, and it was only a few years after his reluctant retirement that another Axis power – the Germans – conquered Chrysler.


Which brings us to Dr. Z.


Dieter Zetsche, the Turkish-born, German-raised engineer is the chairman of the 21st Century DaimlerChrysler, and we can stipulate a few things about Zetsche right away. He wasn’t born here, so he can’t run for president, and he doesn’t seem to want to anyway. If he yells at people in his boardroom, it’s news to me, and it would presumably remain that way as he doesn’t seem to be the type to invite a TV camera in before commencing the tirade.


If he’s written any books, they were probably in German, so I couldn’t read them if I wanted to. (Just because my last name is Krause doesn’t mean my first name is Wilhelm. Come on. Grandpa Krause fought in the European Theater for the good guys.)


But Zetsche is the star of DaimlerChrysler’s new commercials. See Dr. Z show up at a youth soccer game to answer Mrs. Soccer Mom’s question about minivan quality. See him get under a guy’s car in his driveway and explain how the engine works. See him stand by and take it while a 10-year-old girl disses his moustache. See him take an ambushing journalist for a spin and scare the bejeezus out of him by crashing an SUV into a wall.


How can you not love a guy who makes a journalist’s life flash before his eyes?


He even lets the redneck guy from one of DaimlerChrysler’s other commercials play director and yell at him.


The actual content of the commercials is pretty standard fare. We are asked to believe that the soccer mom wrote an e-mail saying, “I know Chrysler invented the minivan, but how’s the quality?” The ambushing journalist asks, “What have been the benefits of the merger between Daimler Benz and Chrysler?”


If these are real questions, I had better start answering the one I got this morning that read “Tell me why your columns are so funny!” Ah. Let me count the reasons.


But implausible content aside, the Dr. Z commercials sort of work, precisely because Zetsche doesn’t seem to mind being the butt of the joke. Self-effacing is good. When Daimler Chrysler marketing executives first presented the idea to ad agency BBDO and the soon-to-be-Dr. Z, Zetsche said, “No way,” which is good. A CEO shouldn’t want to be the star. And if he ends up the star, he should act like he considers himself a ridiculous occupant of the limelight.


But now that he’s in it, Zetsche seems to be having as much fun as anyone, and you know those wacky Germans! They’re always the life of the party, so all of America will gladly join in laughing at, not with, Dr. Z.


If DaimlerChrysler is doing well 20 years from now, but no one remembers Dieter Zetsche, I don’t think Zetsche will care. Lee Iacocca? He has another book coming out next year, titled Where Have All The Leaders Gone? I don’t know where Lee has gone, but the real leaders are busy leading, and even if they do end up in the spotlight, they manage to remember that it’s not all about them.


© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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