Carl Sagan and Sergio Marchionne were not your average guys from Tulsa, or Fargo, or Appleton, or Orlando.
In fact, they were a legendary astronomer with roots at Cornell University in New York, and an industry-changing CEO who was born in Italy and spent most of his career in Canada.
But the story behind the new Jeep commercial, “Pale Blue Dot,” is a fascinating tale of how the posthumous influence of these two difference-makers -- along with the chief marketing officer of Fiat Chrysler Automotive, and Sagan's widow, who respectively hail from France and Queens, New York -- led the way to the creation of an advertisement that continues to advance one of the best brand-building stories ever to come out of Flyover Country.
Here's how I told the tale for Chief Executive magazine:
The new Jeep commercial, "Pale Blue Dot," makes a startling statement about plans for a plug-in hybrid by a brand that was one of the last to join the conversation about saving the planet via EVs.
But while appealing to the quick, the story behind the ad really comes from the dead: two voices from beyond the grave who were responsible for shaping a commercial that Americans just began seeing on television this week.
The two voices, of course, belonged to Carl Sagan and Sergio Marchionne. Sagan’s unmistakably is the star of the advertisement. The renowned astronomer and Cosmos host narrates a famous passage from one of his books about the “pale blue dot” of earth that is visible from the last series of photographs that the Voyager 1 took in 1990 as it headed past Neptune to reaches beyond the solar system.
Marchionne, the late former CEO of Fiat Chrysler, is silent in the ad. But if he hadn’t given the OK to “Pale Blue Dot” before his death in 2018 – and actually encouraged it – he might still be known only as an unmoving opponent of electric vehicles, instead of the visionary auto chief who simply didn’t want an electric Jeep before its time.
The 90-second spot launched softly on YouTube earlier this month. It features the famous image of Earth shot by the spacecraft as a minuscule bluish speck against the black backdrop of space. Sagan’s distinctive, even haunting, voice reads passages from his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, wherein he magically describes earth as “a mote of dust, suspended on a sunbeam.” Celestially appropriate music borrowed from Philip Glass, and a montage of scenes of “life on Earth” – including some in Jeeps – round out the presentation effectively.
But the ad might not have happened at all.
Marchionne was famously slow to warm to the prospect of electric vehicles compared with his counterparts in the global auto industry. So the fact that the company plans to introduce the plug-in-hybrid Jeep Wrangler 4xe in early 2021 is remarkable in and of itself. And Marchionne’s relationship with the ad is key.
“Pale Blue Dot” in its basic form emerged five years ago as one of two strong choices by Fiat Chrysler Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois for a TV commercial to run during the Super Bowl in 2016 that would commemorate Jeep’s 75th anniversary. The other alternative developed by Francois was “Portraits,” which used used a series of striking black-and-white photographs from throughout history of celebrities, soldiers, children, musicians – and Jeeps.
“I went to Sergio with the two ads and we decided we would run ‘Portraits,’ which turned out to be a good idea – it was the really anthemic commercial that we needed at the time,” Francois told Chief Executive. “But he was like me and couldn’t stop watching ‘Pale Blue Dot.’ We’d talk about it between meetings or having dinner. He’d say, ‘How’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ going?’”
At that point, Francois would have to say, “Not fine.” Because the owner of the rights to Sagan’s intellectual property was Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and long-time collaborator. She was a co-creator of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, his 13-part series on PBS in 1980. Sagan, who died in 1996, also was an early and avid exponent of the idea of man-made climate change, based on his pioneering observations about the “runaway greenhouse effect” on Venus – and his fear even in the 1960s was that Earth might be beginning to suffer a similar warming.
Without an electric vehicle to go along with his request to borrow Pale Blue Dot messaging, it mattered little that Francois already had a commercial using it in the can when he approached Druyan in 2017, seeking her approval to use her husband’s materials. He knew that she jealously guarded what she saw as a sacred trove of inspiration for humanity. She had only given similar permission once before, for a TV commercial for Apple’s iPhone that mainly was comprised of images taken by people around the world using the device.
“Olivier wasn’t the first agency or even car company to come to me,” Druyan told Chief Executive. “Without hyperbole, I’m saying that for the last many years, there hasn’t been a week in which there hasn’t been some approach to our rights and permissions department for that piece. Many of them were commercial; some of them were creative. But it’s been constant. People understand that the message is of this time, and is really urgent in this time.”
Druyan turned down Franco
is that first time because, while he had a great commercial to show her, he couldn’t show her an actual electric Jeep yet. Her “terms were devastating,” Francois recalled. “’Yes, I’m sold. Now do an electric Jeep and call me back.’ At the time, there was no talk of an electric Jeep.’”
Yet, as Druyan remembered it, “When we finished our first phone calls in 2017, [Francois] said, ‘I’ll be back.’” She said she understood that “it wasn’t just me asking for solutions” to climate change, “so I never thought I was jus
t standing alone. If it had been just me asking, [Wrangler 4xe] wouldn’t have happened.”
True enough. But “I went back to Sergio with the report of my first phone calls with Ann,” Francois said, “and actually his reaction wasn’t what I thought it would be. “he said, ‘Look, I’ve been thinking about [an electric Jeep] for a while, and I think the brand is open to it.” Mike Manley, who succeeded Marchionne as Fiat Chrysler CEO, was Jeep-brand head at the time.
Francois explained, “Sergio was never against electrics. But he was an amazing, visionary businessman who understood t
hat timing is everything when you make business decisions. And it’s clear now that this hybrid was going to be expensive to develop and produce. So there was probably some business advantage for us to not pioneer but to come at the right time.”
Manley pushed Wrangler 4xe to the finish line, and so Francois was able to go back to Druyan in late 2019 and report that the vehicle was imminent. “I was delighted,” she said. “He called me up and said, ‘Ann, we made you a car.’ And I was very excited about the Jeep Wrangler electric vehicle. [Francois] knew that Carl wouldn’t have countenanced using his iconic message for something that was just going to continue this very dangerous situation we had gotten ourselves into” with climate change.
Wrangler is “its own little ship of the imagination,” Druyan said. “I thought, ‘Wow, if there would be an electric Wrangler, we’d
be accomplishing something.’”
As it happened, the TV ad introducing Wrangler 4xe debuted during the U.S. premiere of the sequel to the original PBS series, on Fox, Cosmos: Possible Worlds. Druyan is a lead producer. Each time the ad is viewed on Jeep’s YouTube channel, the brand will make a contribution to the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and the Carl Sagan Institute of Cornell University.