Barbara Lippert’s Critique

This new “Shift” schtick from Nissan is certainly a switch. The “Mani festo” spots offer a sweeping array of images, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, a female double amputee mountain-climbing on prosthetic legs and women voting in Africa. Huh? Such a sudden embrace of world history and human possibility would seem at odds with the previous “Driven” campaign, which tended less toward global humanitarianism and more toward your basic American smart- and bad-assism.

But advertising is based on change, and according to analysts, Nissan needs an emotional image campaign. And as the announcer thoughtfully intones, “A shift can change a person, a life, the world—or it can simply change the way you move through it.” (I assume they mean the way you move through the world, not the way you move through a shift.) These spots mix the feeling of Benetton’s human-rights quest with a bit of Nike’s insane devotion to physical discipline and some Powerade-like stunts-on-bad-home-video, sprinkled with a touch of Coke’s old-mountaintop feeling. They’re nicely done, but as with many “anthem”-type spots, the pastiche could be released at any time for any product.

The commercials busily mix many aesthetics, high and low, and offer a range of images—some very cute (a baby’s first steps), some gorgeous (a V formation of cars streak ing across a desert), some clichéd (a Hell’s Angel moved by art in a museum), some offputting (the open armpit of a tank-topped attendee at a car rally). There are all ages, all races and many inclusions of “other” (a hearing-impaired family signing in a suburban backyard and a woman wind-surfing on a prosthetic leg—in addition to the previously mentioned mountain climber).

That’s a lot to process. Even the best spot—which includes smart, edgy music, foot age of Jackson Pollack painting (shades of Apple and Picasso) and a wonderful shot of an old Z getting drenched from above with paint—manages to go a bit off the rails.

Words and type move through these many-layered spots, with “shift” all in caps (cleverly, you literally have to use the shift key to make it so), followed by a stream of other words (a literal stream of consciousness): “dia logue,” “voice,” “obstacles,” “journey,” “beauty,” “creativity” and so on. It’s a clever device that opens the spots to every possibility—probably too many.

What I do like in these spots is the ending: a procession of Nis san’s new cars—boom, boom, boom—individually dropped into the picture in a quick, slick process that’s fresh and connects.

In addition to the big brand work, several spots promote the new 2003 Z. Everyone knows the Z is truly a cult car (at my 15th high school reunion, a classmate asked, “Remember me, the guy with the Z?”). Nissan has only to tap the passion of the collector, and it has, in a great spot showing still shots of Z owners’ vanity plates. Coming from an honest, organic place, it’s almost effortless, and also draws viewers into a delightful puzzle (my fave plate is “ZMYDUST”).

The agency made a creative move in hiring photojournalists Mary Ellen Mark and Elliott Erwitt, among others, to take still shots for the Z spots. Erwitt photographed people in New York reacting to the Z (we don’t actually see what they’re looking at), and the black-and-white shots are beautiful. They deliver the charming, offbeat characters and telling expressions Erwitt is known for—but it’s hard to tell that these people are checking out a car. Maybe a series of Z’s and their owners (à la Erwitt’s dogs and their owners) would have worked better. Similarly, Mark’s portraits of members of the LAPD and aviator-shades-wearing state troopers are beautifully done and kind of amusing, and normally would work well for a sports car—the message is, “Be careful out there.” But now it seems poorly timed, given our post-9/11 reverence for the police.

The product-specific spots—less sweeping and visually PC, and more smart-ass—are likely to fare better within the “Shift” culture. For now, we’ve moved to a new level of Nissan enlightenment: Shift happens.