Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Armageddon last week—I saw it both on TV and from my living-room windows, which face south to Manhattan’s tip, dead on to where the twin towers used to be. And in the light of that still-smoking hole and the people who perished, in New York, Washington, D.C., and aboard the hijacked planes, critiquing anything seems beside the point.

Especially advertising, which is so ephemeral. In this context, no advertising seems appropriate, un less it’s announcing aid to the rescue workers or the families of the victims. Or helping in the search. And even that has something of a self-serving ring.

Thankfully, the nonstop news coverage on most stations went without ads. But the clichés about life going on and the need to go forward are all we have. And so, make no mistake about it—as our president likes to say—regular, laugh-tracked, Technicolor programming will resume soon enough. New shows will be launched. But now, in contrast to the horror show we’ve actually lived through, reality programming seems even creepier and more ridiculous. And punctuating all of that will be the commercials. (For one thing, I don’t imagine those 1-800-CALL-ATT spots with Carrot Top commandeering a New York sightseeing bus or a police horse will ever run again. They were tasteless enough before the disaster.)

I’d looked at this new Prius spot before the tragedy and appreciated the fact that it uses a compelling visual allegory to promote Toyota’s new half-gas, half-electric car. It’s a product that is actually helpful and will no doubt prove even more so as gas prices escalate and get more volatile. So here goes.

The spot opens on the sun-baked, industrial landscape of active oil rigs in Bakersfield, Calif. The setting for many scary movies, it’s a no-man’s land with miles of seemingly corroded machinery that clanks. But as we get overwhelmed by the noise and mechanical gloom, there’s a voice over that’s reassuring. “There’s a change happening,” we’re told. “It begins with Prius, Toyota’s revolutionary hybrid vehicle.”

With that, our new, snappy, environmentally sensitive auto appears, leading a line of Toyota vehicles, which are “rated more fuel efficient in their class than any other brand.” This line of automotive hope, of the environmentally friendly future, runs parallel to the nasty mechanics of the old oil-field metal rigs that, as they pump up and down, resemble great rusted birds, or praying mantises, or T. Rexes. Soon, one of the Rexes breaks out of its chains and starts clattering away from the field. It is followed by its fellow machines, heading like dinosaurs toward extinction. (The action switches deftly between actual machinery and animatronic puppets.)

“Transportation is finally evolving,” we hear. The voice over guy is Jeff Goldblum, who, aside from bringing the high-minded cool of iMac commercials to the project, is known for playing the dry-witted chaos theoretician Ian Max well, down with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

I like the big idea, and it’s certainly well executed. My only cavil is that it is too subtle. This is an incredible car—it self-charges, changes from gas to electric seamlessly, gets more than 52 miles per gallon and completely shuts off at stoplights. I really wanted to hear more about such clear wonders. Apple’s Macintosh already took the Big Brother/ sledgehammer idea, but this too is a machine that should be worshipped. And while, within the Toyota family, it’s nice and democratic to in clude so many fuel-injected children within a single spot, it blunts the impact of introducing the Prius (pronounced Pree-us), which deserves star status.

One more thing: Though the dance of the rigs appeals to me visually, the meta phor is mixed. The idea of turning fossil fuels into fossilized dinosaurs doesn’t really add up. Paradoxically, as one theory goes, dinosaurs might have contributed to their own extinction by releasing so much methane into the atmosphere (by, excuse the expression, farting) that they caused their own global warming. Also, there’s something slightly menacing about the way the rigs march off. Are they going to step on someone’s house?

Earlier print work, also by Oasis (all other Toyota cars are handled by Saatchi & Saatchi), carried the very clever headline, “The new car for a used world.” Bravo.