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Top Marks for High-Altitude Stunt

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"Difficult is worth doing," is Honda's latest tagline from Wieden + Kennedy, London. In its curiously straightforward, declarative is-ness, it reminds me of Adidas' "Impossible is nothing." Which one sets up its brand as harder working? Tagline philosophers could debate that for centuries.


Regardless, with that phrase, the agency would seem to be describing not only the Japanese carmaker's corporate ethos, but also the irony of its own predicament: Year after year, Wieden creates groundbreaking, award-winning, attention-getting work for Honda. With consumers (and awards judges) trained to expect that sort of success, the agency sets the bar so high that it's hard to top. (In "Cog," using a magical Rube Goldberg-like chain reaction, the car built itself in two hypnotic minutes. "Grr," with its infectious music and inspired animation, was a great spot that dealt with a serious and important subject -- diesel fuel and the environment -- in a funny, optimistic way.)

All are analogies for "human engineering" and the idea of dreaming -- ideas that now suggest Honda to U.K. drivers. (Previously, the brand was considered a stodgy, functional, old-person's car.)

But with this latest "Skydiving" effort, the attempt was to go further than a TV spot. The ground was seeded with non-branded teaser ads that explained the art of the dive and the immense skill required to make elaborate mid-air formations. The highly graphic and beautifully produced spots attracted a ton of free media and so much Web attention that the agency offered this measurement: "one in every 670 blog posts in the world wrote about the live skydiving ad before it aired.'' How's that for a new metric?

Called "Jump,'' the ad for the new Honda Accord, the first live commercial on British television, was a huge deal. Generated by Honda's media agency, Starcom, the jump was staged in concert with the U.K.'s Channel 4 during its popular Sunday night show Come Dine With Me. The live stunt actually attracted a bigger audience as it went along, and gave the channel an 8 percent ratings boost for the time slot. Needless to say, it went viral very quickly, and YouTube is filled with posts giving the spot five stars.

The 3-minute 20-second stunt involved 19 elite skydivers jumping out of two airplanes over Madrid, Spain. They used their red and yellow jumpsuited bodies to create the image of a steering wheel in the air, and then spelled out the word "Honda," letter by letter in the sky. Seen from above, the aerial tricks looked to me like links of DNA under a microscope. There's another analogy: You could say that the sort of elaborate planning, precision and confidence it takes to pull off such a stunt is in the Honda brand DNA.

So in terms of impact, this was a 10. In terms of doing something new to get attention, this ranks up there. The risks of live execution were huge: Sadly, the plane that was used in the live spot crashed the next day, killing one diver and injuring others. (None of the skydivers from the Honda spot were on board.)

Imagine the true horror if anything had gone wrong. Given that it went off perfectly, however, the takeaway is that Honda can engineer the impossible. In truth, because the spot was filmed live at 14,000 feet, it necessarily looked a bit fuzzy, with annoyingly muffled sound. While marveling at the prodigious feats, I was also sort of simultaneously anxious and bored. It kind of reminded me of John Cameron Swayze's Timex commercials ("Takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin''') from the 1950s.

In the end, Honda's aerial gymnastics are no more modern than an Esther Williams synchronized swimming routine. But despite the old-school air ballet, there's a larger reason that the ad is cutting edge: It fits generally into the genre of what, if you hang around art schools, is called post-post-modern art. That is, a piece of art is not complete until a consumer participates in it; it's not art unless you can watch it get created, be a part of it and, in that way, change it. Regular post-modern art, on the other hand, juxtaposes media, styles and ideas that have already existed, in a way that creates something new.

Smartly, the agency followed "Jump'' with a non-live, gorgeously produced spot using the same idea -- skydivers in red jumpsuits form a steering wheel, a suspension spring and a camera, then spell out "Accord." Because it was staged in three days over the Mojave Desert, it's beautifully shot, brilliantly scored, perfectly executed and a pleasure to watch. It's right up there with the agency's previous commercials. I would give it five stars on YouTube.

HONDA

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy, London
Creative directors: Tony Davidson, Kim Papworth
Producer: Jon Chads
Account director: Jonathan Tapper
Production Co.: Knucklehead
Director: Johnny Green
Producer: Matthew Brown
Service Co.: Excentrik Productions
Director of photography: Adam Kimmel
Post production house: The Mill
Flame artist: Barnsley, Corey, Giles & Jonathan
Visual effects supervisor, online producer: Darren O'Kelly
Edit facility: Work Post
Editor: Neil Smith
Sound facility: Jungle
Sound engineers: Owen
Music editor: Soundtree Music
Music: Esquivel, "The Breeze And I"