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AT&T Shot Into Orbit

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If there were a gold medal for the most breathtaking use of music and imagery in a 2010 Winter Olympics commercial, it would go to AT&T and BBDO New York for "Up and Up," the spot featuring Gretchen Bleiler as a snowboarder in space.

The commercial is as visually dazzling as it is sonically hypnotic. To paraphrase Lou Reed, whose 1972 song provides the soundtrack, it just keeps me hanging on.

There's incredible mastery (and risk) in the way the music and images match: Both are solitary, spare, stark and slowed down. There's a kind of unresolved longing in each that makes the combination resonate that much more intensely.



"Perfect Day" is one of my favorite songs ever, but as with most things Lou Reed-related, it takes a walk on the wild side.

The song, off his Transformer album (produced by David Bowie), is nominally about "drinking sangria in the park." But most people read the lyrics as references to Reed's struggles with drugs and sexuality at the time. As such, the song was also used to great effect in the movie Trainspotting, about heroin addiction.

The result is an unexpected use of a hypnotic tune. As the backrop to a space odyssey, it comes off as provocative and modern.

Equally breakthrough is the spot's focus on a female snowboarder. I'm as amused and amazed by the Flying Tomato as anyone else. But he would be the usual choice, in clown pants.

Instead, we get an entirely new kind of heroine. A combination ice queen/astronaut/extraterrestrial Olympian, Bleiler comes off as a futuristic superhuman who's not only cool but elegant. We see her blonde hair and eyes lit up in the beginning, and then she's fully helmeted and goggled. She rides the halfpipe straight through from the edge of the Earth to some new solar system out there in the universe.

What a message for us all -- but it's especially wonderful for all the young girls watching. (I also love that three Olympic advertisers -- Chevrolet, McDonald's and Walmart -- have spots involving girls playing hockey.)
 
Back to Gretchen. The metaphor could be birth, or self-reinvention, or just pushing yourself to new heights, as Olympians do. In the wake of Bleiler's disappointing 11th-place finish in the halfpipe this year (after winning silver in 2006), it can also seem to be about transcending failure.

Ostensibly, AT&T is trying to reach new heights, too. "Here's to possibilities" is the tagline that appears at the very end, over the AT&T logo.

That's quite an elevated statement for AT&T to make. Lately, the brand has gotten down in the mud with Verizon over coverage and red and blue marks on a map. Those spots remind me of politicians fighting over the healthcare bill. The argument is endless, and you can't quite rely on what either side is saying. And it seems to me you're in trouble if you have to trot out some random actor like Luke Wilson for the defense.

"Up and Up" is the perfect antidote for all that. It looks fantastic, sounds chill, and speaks of unlimited human possibility. I raise my glass of sangria in its general direction.

See also: "Olympic Miracles on Ice"