Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Drive Into The Sunset

Open on a dark, winding road as a car pursues a racing bicycle. It’s a narrow route cut into a mountainside, and as the cyclist pedals furiously, he tries to motion for the sedan to pass him. But the driver stays right on his tail.

Is it a cat-and-mouse game? Road rage? A stalker hounding his prey? The score, “Calm Down” by Psapp, seems expressly designed to be equally ambiguous—ominous at times, lighter at others. The gorgeous visual teases (rainbows of light and shadows, dramatic overhead shots) add to the suspense.

That “Downhill Racer” could summon so much narrative intrigue in 25 wordless seconds is pretty remarkable. By the close of the spot, however, it all becomes clear: It’s not a psychopath getting his jollies or even your some borderline personality exercising his inner Larry David. Instead, we see that the cyclist has lost power in his own headlight, and the driver is using the car’s “steerable” lights to illuminate the way before they reach civilization.

The ingenious demo promotes the headlights as “one of the 120 not-so-standard features on the all new, German-engineered Volkswagen Passat.” “On the road of life” as the tag says, we learn something about the driver.

For the past few years, the rap on Arnold’s VW work was that it had lost its magic, not to mention its unique positioning. A lot of car ads were clever and visual and music-based. But one of the big differences in the earlier VW work was its innovative use of alternative bands, resulting in a sort of cult following of those in the know—the pre-iPod generation.

Indeed, replicating the greatness of some of the late-’90s “Drivers wanted” spots would be tough. There was the introduction of the new Beetle (“Helloooo rich hippies!”). Then, one near-perfect commercial, “Milky Way,” which featured the hypnotic “Pink Moon” (from a then-forgotten Nick Drake) as it showed four friends riding in a Cabrio convertible on a starry night. They pull into a driveway for a house party, but then pull back out, preferring to stay on the road and drink in the perfect night air. Watching the spot was like taking a yoga breath. For a lowly commercial (that most disposable of media), the stirring undergroundish music and unexpected action seemed to draw on something permanent from the soul.

“Downhill Racer” isn’t as blissed-out as “Milky Way,” but it comes close in conjuring up dreamlike atmospherics and wordlessly evoking emotion and meaning.

For the agency, that accomplishment is perhaps bittersweet. Arnold just lost the account to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and this is its final campaign for VW, a client of 10 years.

The whole campaign is good, and includes artful and entertaining print work. A spread in Entertainment Weekly promotes the Beetle as a “force of good” pitted against 35 stickers of evil, including a skimpy, tiger-print Speedo, an expired parking meter and a killer mosquito.

In its modern, 360-degree way, the campaign also has a Web-film component: lots of 20-second “feature films,” each illustrating one of the 120 “not-so-standard” features. They’re like art-school exercises in clever visual metaphors. My faves include a plastic dinosaur and action-figure caveman (for the Dynaudio sound system) and an Atlas-like guy in cargo shorts, pushing a boulder up a hill (for the hill-hold assist). Atlas not only shrugs, but stops to get a drink out of his fanny pack, and the big rock stays put.

“Check Point” is the TV spot that shows many of the features in action. A typical mussed-up thirtysomething VW owner type arrives at the border in his silver Passat. The inspectors start getting serious when they notice his trunk release, cold glove compartment (another spot shows two guys in a desert keeping sushi in it), back-seat pass-through and special umbrella holder. They use a flashlight to see what’s underneath the hole for the umbrella. Meanwhile, as the driver watches, the guards decide this must be the most tricked-out smuggling device ever, and they start taking the car apart.

It made me covet an umbrella holder, but at the same time, with all the (ostensibly) beefed-up security in this country, it makes you think that you might not have to go to Mexico to encounter a similar scene—it could happen tomorrow at the Lincoln Tunnel.

“Thank You Very Much,” the newest spot, to be released this week, is as light, bouncy and joyous as “Downhill Racer” is dark. Using the music from the 1970 movie Scrooge with Albert Finney, it showcases all of the Passat’s catchy new features. One problem with VW in the near past that no agency could have fixed was its focus on the luxury Phaeton, which was a bust, at the expense of the Passat and several other popular models, which had not been updated in years. Thus, the rousing lyrics, “Thank you very much/That’s the nicest thing/That anyone’s ever done for me,” seem to have multiple meanings. The spot ends with a technician slipping a crash-test dummy’s foot, complete with conservative, wingtip shoe, back into the car and slamming the door.

So goodbye, Arnold, after those 10 years on VW, and thank you for the wry humanity, the music—and at times, even the soul.



Volkswagen

Agency

Arnold, Boston

Chief creative officer

Ron Lawner

Executive creative director

Alan Pafenbach

Creative directors

Dave Weist, Colin Jeffery

Art directors

Brandon Sides,

Phil Squier



Copywriter

Mark Billows

Agency producers

Amy Favat, Bill Goodell

Director

Jake Scott, RSA

Editorial

Bug Editorial

Passat short films

Production co.

Brand New School