It should, by all rights, be the one of the worst ads you've ever seen: A Hollywood has-been straddles two 18-wheelers at sunset while a nearly forgotten new-age song somberly drones along in the background.
But "Epic Split," the viral masterwork from Volvo Trucks and agency Forsman & Bodenfors, is far more than the sum of its parts. It's a testament to boldness, blue-sky creativity and the willingness to have faith in your creative vision, even when it sounds patently ridiculous.
"You have an old action star and you have a song that is out of date, and when you combine it, it's like a Tarantino movie," explained Björn Engström, one of the creative executives behind the video. "You combine two things, and suddenly it works."
While he admits the video premise had its share of skeptics during development, its creators have since been widely honored as some of the world's most innovative and successful digital marketers. And this week, the team converges on the Cannes Lions, where "Epic Split" is a heavy favorite to take several of the ad industry's top honors.
The sixth and final chapter in a hilariously odd campaign that redefined what b-to-b marketing could accomplish, "Epic Split" won a Black Pencil from D&AD and Best of Show at The One Show, which also honored Forsman & Bodenfors as Agency of the Year and Volvo Trucks as Client of the Year.
They can almost certainly expect a similar caliber of honors at this week's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
And while clients often shrug off ad awards as agency-world puffery, this client is happy to share in the joy because that strangely compelling video is selling the hell out of some trucks.
"We see all the indicators showing this has been a very good investment—a relatively small investment—with a massive return," said Anders Vilhelmsson, PR director for Volvo Trucks.
Winning on the Road
While Vilhelmsson declined to discuss sales figures, he did share with Adweek some of the results of the brand's recent survey of 2,200 commercial truck owners and buyers:
• Nearly half who saw the "Live Test" videos, including "Epic Split," said they are now more likely to choose Volvo the next time they make a truck purchase.
• A third of respondents had contacted a dealer or visited a Volvo Trucks website to learn more.
• The survey showed "a very positive impact on the perception of Volvo Trucks as an innovative and modern truck brand."
"If we talk to our salespeople in our 140 markets all over the world," Vilhelmsson said, "they tell us very often one of the first things prospective customers bring up in conversation is the viral film."
Not bad for a campaign with a literally nonexistent media budget.
Why So Weird?
"Truck buyers are surrounded by a lot of influencers, and the largest group is truck drivers. And you can't reach truck drivers with traditional advertising," said Engström, senior partner and creative at Forsman & Bodenfors. "We needed to go broad, and we didn't have a media budget, so we decided viral was the only way to go."
That decision led to many creative iterations of the "Live Test" idea, but despite praise for the series from critics and commenters alike, no one could have predicted the success of its last act, "Epic Split."
"We realized in the process it was going to be the grand finale of this 'Live Test' series. We did everything to make it a success. We really had a lot of planning and PR," Engström said. "But you can never plan for a success like this. It's one of the most viewed ads ever on YouTube."
Long before tallying more than 70 million views, it began like any creative concept: with a group of creatives, huddled together, trying to come up with an idea both strategically sound and audaciously unfathomable.
"From the start, we had this idea of two trucks reversing and something was going to happen between the trucks," Engström said. "We presented a lot of ideas about what that could be."
It wasn't until the team began talking to director Andreas Nilsson that the name was finally spoken: Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles from Brussels. The martial arts legend who, when attacked with a 50,000-volt Taser in Time Cop, jumped effortlessly from face-down on the floor into the splits on a kitchen counter wearing nothing but his underwear.
They clearly had the right man.
But would he be up for it?