By on August 25, 2016

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His commercials were a sign of the times — desperate, struggling times that suddenly turned prosperous.

In the 1980s, Ronald DeLuca was the hidden face behind an instantly familiar one — Chrysler Corporation chairman Lee Iacocca, who walked into his company’s own commercials to personally pitch front-wheel-drive K-car platform products to a recession-weary America.

DeLuca, the advertising whiz hired by Iacocca to help turn around Chrysler’s late-1970s death plunge, died last week at 91, according to The New York Times. During his tenure DeLuca and Iacocca cranked out a slew of unusually frank, bold commercials that paid off in a big way.

The two men, both Pennsylvanian-born to Italian immigrants, met in the late 1960s when Iacocca was firmly in place at Ford Motor Company. DeLuca rose up the ranks of ad agency Kenyon & Eckhard, and when Iacocca jumped in to save Chrysler in 1978, he tapped DeLuca’s talents. Together, they helped persuade the U.S. government to hand the failing company a loan guarantee.

After that, the only thing left was the not-so-simple task of convincing jaded Americans that Chrysler wasn’t an archaic relic teetering on the edge of the corporate toilet bowl. They needed to sell product. Once they had it, DeLuca would craft the ad, and Iacocca would make the pitch.

“There was a certain amount of risk involved,” DeLuca told The New York Times in 1992. “The risk was that our company would go down the drain.”

In the early years, the ads featured a folksy Iacocca coaxing people back to the brand with humility (“No cars are perfect, but we think these come pretty close”) and an appeal to basic economics. Say it’s 1981, you have $6,500 to spend and have a broken-down gas guzzler in the driveway. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that buying a warrantied Dodge Aries or Plymouth Reliant might be a good idea.

The ads were more about dispelling myths and boosting the corporation’s public image then they were about selling cars, Iacocca later wrote.

As the company rocketed back to prosperity with the success of the K-car and its many offspring — including the minivan — the ads became boastful, yet remained wary of the public’s fears. Bold claims were tempered by promises that the company wouldn’t become lax.

DeLuca retired in 1991, but remained a part-time consultant to his former agency. He was on the set of Iacocca’s last commercial — his 61st in total — which aired in 1992. It was Iacocca’s farewell address, which also featured a computer-generated look at the new line of “cab-forward” LH platform vehicles that would carry the company into the 1990s. Product had grown stale, and DeLuca & Co. wanted buyers to know there was a new design revolution underway.

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