Volvo and Nissan both have ads on TV at the moment. One recalls the greatness that was advertising, the other gives us advertising’s dismal present.
The Nissan ad is called "Seven Days in a Sentra" and it features a young man spending a week in his car. At the end of the first spot, Marc Horowitz looks into the camera and says, "this could get interesting."
But it never does. There was a time, 10 years ago, when this idea was fresh and funny. Now it is an exercise in the obvious, right down to Marc’s garden gnome, that object of the college prank transplanted to the mainstream by the movie Amelie and then forced into over exposure by those tremendously bad Travelocity ads.
Now the odd thing is that the campaign is adored by Barbara Lippert, Adweek’s brilliant judge of advertising. So maybe I’m wrong. But I can’t help feeling that the creative team sat down and decided to "get a little crazy" in pursuit of a younger consumer. One of the new rules of advertising: don’t ever patronize your market, especially when they enjoy acute sensitivity to contemporary culture in general and marketing in particular.
(It is perhaps too easy to blame the agency [TBWA\CHIAT\DAY, Playa Del Rey]. Ever since Carlos Ghosn moved the Nissan marketing team to Nashville, we have had to wonder what the costs might be. Maybe this sort of ad plays in Nashville. More probably, when you live in Nashville, it’s hard to see that it doesn’t play on the coasts.)
Lippert likes the Sentra campaign she says because there is "genius…in the casting."
Horowitz’s good-natured, quirky, inventive and flexible approach to life is delightful to watch.
But in an era of really gifted comics and satirists, people capable of interrogating contemporary life until the seams burst and the lining tears away (think Jon Heder [Napoleon Dynamite] or Sasha Baron Cohen [Borat], ) this ends up looking "indie lite," or agit prop with the "agit" excised, or performance art turned into dinner theatre. (When your average frat boy would have been wittier, you know you have a problem.)
Now to the good news: a Volvo ad called "Rosie" that features a little girl chattering away as her Dad buckles her into the back seat of the family car.
This is advertising as we used to make it. Someone sat down and thought about the value proposition of any car from a father’s point of view (something like "safe passage"), the standard feature of the Volvo value proposition ("really safe passage"), and then looked for a way to propose this proposition in a manner that is interesting and powerful.
Sweet Jerusalem, they hit this one so far out of the park, it’s still traveling. Rosie, a little girl of about 5, is talking, talking, and talking (as above, complete with visual aid). We can’t tell what she is saying. She could be reporting a story, she could be making one up. (Actually, it’s hard to tell: is Rosie telling the story, or is the story, with its calls for dramatic gesture and exclamation, telling her?) Dad hesitates to close the door for fear of interrupting, but it’s clear to us (and to him) that there is no interrupting this great spill of detail, enthusiasm and fluting talk.
One of the things I love about the ad is that "Dad" is played with restraint. It would have been easy to have him "mug" his reaction or signal how achingly sweet this moment is. But, no, that would have been patronizing. Rosie is plenty because Rosie is everything. We know exactly what is going on here. No additional indexing, no additional "viewing instructions" are necessary. What we get from Dad, at the end of the spot, is the littlest smile as he drives away. Rosie, of course, is still talking.
Rosie’s talking jag is the sort of thing that one parent might report back to another. It’s possible that the grandparent’s might hear about it. But it is also the sort of thing that is so deeply implicated in family life that, chances are, it will not stay in memory. After the fact, Dad might say, "yeah, that Rosie has always been a chatter box" but the treasure of this moment will not make it into the family’s "oral tradition," into the scrap book or into the attic. It is evanescent. It is gone.
Someone at the agency went and recovered it. (Did they get it from research? Did it come from a brainstorm?) And they seized on it as a way for us to think about "really safe passage" and the value that Volvo creates. Left to their own devices, the automotive engineers will wow us with side impact tests and braking stats. And we can communicate these to the consumer with promises of "safety." And, bless them, even in a focus group, the consumer pretends to be interested, because, hey, who isn’t interested in safety?
But when the pitch is about safety, the particular gets lost in the general. Yes, we all believe in safety, in the way we all believe in motherhood or iPods. But for God’s sake, safety does not work as a brand proposition, and it isn’t something Volvo can claim for itself, unless it is made vivid, actual, human, and urgent.
Rosie is safety made vivid, actual, human and urgent. It is when we see a little girl telling a story from her Dad’s point of view that see how much safety matters. Now it’s clear. Now it’s clear that Volvo is worth every penny of the price premium, and the styling shortfall, that Volvo obliges us to pay for it.
There are several ways to express the value augmentation, the meaning manufacture, taking place here. Here’s one: Rosie’s story > (augments) Rosie’s charm > Rosie’s vulnerability > Dad’s responsibility and solicitude > Volvo’s safety. Actually, we could parse it a couple of ways. And this too is the measure of a great ad. It has a kind of semiotic redundancy built into it. We can see it several ways but we always up back in the same place.
But enough about the anthropology. What about the advertising? It turns out we can choose. We can choose between agencies that chase after new segments with palid recitations of the kind of thing the consumer can do better while sleepwalking. Or we can tell human and branding stories with such power that the world comes to us. If advertising (and marketing and anthropology) learned anything in the 1990s, it was this: don’t play your consumer, don’t patronize. Do what you do as well as you can do. Find the value propositions and tell its story with all the creative power and cultural knowledge the agency has at its disposal. Or, as we might now put it, find the Rosie within.
Anonymous. 2006. Nissan’s Long Haul To Nashville. BusinessWeek. July 3, 2006. here.
Lippert, Barbara. 2006. Living la Vida Nissan: TBWA’s inventive campaign stars a man, a car and a life. Adweek. October 23, 2006, p. 26. here.
For a YouTube version of the Volvo ad, here.
Hats off to the authors of this ad:
(details courtesy of Euro RSCG Worldwide)
Title of campaign – Volvo “Who Would You Give a Volvo To?”
Network – Euro RSCG Worldwide
Office – Euro RSCG Worldwide
Advertiser – Ford Motor Company
Brand – Volvo Cars
Product Category – Automotive
Launch Month/Year – September 2006
Geographical Area –
Global Chief Executive Officer: David Jones
Chief Executive Officer, NY and San Francisco: Ron Berger
Executive Creative Director: Jeff Kling
Creative Director: Nick Cohen
Art Director: Julie Lamb
Copywriter: Risa Mickenberg
Contributor: Sharoz Marakechi
Director of Broadcast Production: Joe Guyt
Director of Broadcast Production, Business Affairs: Cathy Pitegoff
Associate Producer: Becky Burkhard
Group Account Director: Ian Marlowe
Account Mgmt: Edward Yu, Caroline Jackson and Amy Richardson
Business Manager: Deborah Steeg
Talent: Dawn Kerr
Production Company AND City: Furlined,
Director: Pekka Hara
Director of Photography: Joaquin Baca-Asay
Executive Producer: David Thorne
Producer: Rob Stark