The Legendary Astronomer and the Shrewd CEO

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.