Fiat Begins Showing Feisty Side, Even Before New Super Bowl Ad

Forget the traditional peaceable sensibilities of the holiday season. Fiat has been going to war, on a number of fronts.

In the U.S. market, there has been Fiat’s new initiative, shared with Chrysler brands, to specifically target Volkswagen owners with special sales  incentives to switch brands. Fiat recently went further than any other car brand in utilizing the unique location-based capabilities of gas-pump-side TV advertising. Fiat executives also have gloated over the fact that their all-electric vehicle is a version of the classically designed 500 — and have taken shots at the prosaic design of the all-electric Nissan Leaf.

And, of course, these things have unfolded even before Fiat gets to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. It’s expected to shine there once again, with a racy TV ad chosen from among several that brand executives have been teasing — including one involving a supermodel, her bikini top and the pincers of a scorpion. Expect a rapt audience for the likely Fiat ad in this Super Bowl, on CBS on February 3, after the brand ran a seductive spot for the Abarth version of its 500 during the last Big Game.

Apparently unprovoked, a Fiat executive took a none-too-veiled shot at Nissan for the styling of its Leaf. And with the Los Angeles Auto Show as a backdrop, Nissan quickly shot right back at some of Fiat’s own design executions.

The spat began unfolding at the show’s media preview when Matt Davis, head of Fiat product marketing in the United States, was talking about the coming all-electric version of the Fiat 500 and told Bloomberg News, “Let’s be honest, ugliness is probably one of the worst forms of pollution. The Fiat 500e proves that you do not have to give up on good looks to deliver an electric car.”

Now, in Davis’s defense, he’s absolutely right about the design of most all-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids so far. They’re at best uninspired, at worst an arrogant reflection of the notion that because they’re powered in a “superior” fashion, such models don’t need to look like conventional vehicles either. So you end up with the minimalist wedge shape of the Toyota Prius, the prosaic design of the Chevrolet Volt — and the pragmatic styling package comprised by Leaf.

In any event — and perhaps stepping up a bit too quickly to confirm its identity as the offending brand — Nissan shot right back. Unlike the Fiat EV, said Simon Sproule, head of Nissan’s global marketing communications, toAutomotive News, “Leaf is a “fully functioning” car for families and daily use. And he called the Fiat 500e a me-too car to appease regulators, as contrasted with Leaf, which was designed as an all-electric from the ground up and has bravely led the EV charge.

Sproule also made an addendum that some might view as gratuitous, but without which this tussle wouldn’t be as much fun. “Let’s face it, Fiat has not shied away from controversial styling themselves,” Sproule told the magazine. “Many would describe many of their products as visual pollution. Take a long, hard look at the Fiat Doblo.”

If you do, you’ll note that the Doblo, for the European market, indeed looks like the unfortunate result of a mating of a compact pickup truck, a shrunken Chevrolet Suburban and some sort of panel van.

Fiat’s director of brand communications, Casey Hurbis, was happy to continue the dust-up, at a low level, in his conversation with me. “Doblo,” he snorted, “isn’t even in the U.S. market.”

Meanwhile, Fiat has come up with an advertisement that is specific only to Gas Station TV, a Birmingham, Mich.-based company that operates pump-top screens at nearly 1,900 gas stations across the country. The ad for the 2013 Fiat 500 features a character who literally appears to be abiding in the gas pump just so he can get a peek at the 40-mpg Fiat 500.

The ad — initially running only on GSTV at California gas stations — is the most “environmentally relevant” ad yet created for the network by any automaker, GSTV CEO David Leider told me. It ends with a listing of the three Fiat dealers closest to each particular gas station.

“We like to do fun, innovative, breakthrough creative, and this provided a unique venue,” Hurbis told me. The ad on GSTV “certainly provides a captive audience” while they fill their cars, he said. “I’m a little surprised that more advertisers haven’t used this space already to create contextually relevant marketing.”

In his most aggressive move, CEO Sergio Marchionne lately has been offering $1,000 rebates to current VW owners in the U.S. to buy a Fiat or Chrysler vehicle. The offer is only for buyers who currently own or lease a VW vehicle, and customers don’t have to give up their VW to qualify.