Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Rubbernecking For VW

Here’s an existential question to ponder at your leisure: if you rubberneck in your living room (or den, great room or media room) while watching these Volkswagen Jetta commercials, does traffic back up to the kitchen?

Because seeing these spots is like watching, well, a car wreck. Eyes widen, mouths open, hearts beat faster, and we start imagining the unthinkable. They are shocking every time.

Perhaps the shock is so extreme because it disrupts the lull. In “Like,” two guys have a conversation about the young driver’s annoying overuse of that word; in “Movie,” four friends discuss their reactions to a film. Each opens with the nice, funny, chatty, realistic dialogue and warm interior scenes that we had come to love from VW’s past spots, from the Arnold era. Thus, I was comforted into thinking it would be more of a Nick Drake Pink Moon kind of experience—just those perfectly cast, diverse, demo-appropriate crazy kids enjoying the ride in a way that resonates uniquely with the brand.

But talk about a split personality: Everything’s fine, normal, nice, entertaining, convincing, and then—boom. So ferocious is the crash that sitting through it is actually a bit sickening. In “Like,” we even see the driver’s head (OK, the stuntperson’s head) hitting the air bag. The sound is just as awful and compelling: metal crumples, glass smashes, and it’s tremendously convincing. And then, black.

Insurance spokes-guide Dennis Haysbert doesn’t show up. Nor do the expected ambulances, police sirens or maimed, screaming people. Rather, as the tagline tells us, “Safe Happens.” Promoting the Jetta’s four- and five-star side- and front-impact crash ratings, the spots show all passengers standing on the side of the road with barely a scratch. The final shot, under the “Safe Happens” banner, and all those black stars, is of the actual car crashed in the making of the ad.

My opinion is as divided as the spots themselves. Part of the aim of advertising is to get attention, and these spots definitely break through in an unforgettable way. They could not be stronger; they’re perfectly cast, shot and edited. And let’s face it: advertising manipulates and, if necessary, shocks. So it’s not the shock-for-shock-value that bothers me, because there is a decent message about safety here. And the way “Like”—which I like more than “Movie”—sets the stage for the possibility of an accident is even quietly profound: the guy in the passenger seat is telling the driver that nobody can, like, cut him off. (“Stuff like that happens, or it doesn’t happen,” he says.)

Then they see the out-of-control truck, and he says, “Holy sh**.” Safe happens because sh** happens. That clever setup aside, what bothers me about the campaign is the without-a-nick ending. It feels dangerous and a bit irresponsible: regular drivers are not stuntpeople; the scenes were perfectly designed and calibrated (by the same technical crew that produced the horrific accident in the movie Adaptation) to result in nothing more than a couple of scratches.

Clearly, the circumstances of every accident are different. What if the tow truck were going 10 miles an hour faster in “Like”? How about if the two people in the back of the car in “Movie” had squeezed in a third? (Never mind the possibility that they were not all wearing seat belts.)

Ironically, this is not the first safety message VW has run for the Jetta. A previous Arnold spot offered a happy little song and black-and- white typography marching to the beat, until the type crashed. I thought it was clever, but also upsetting; but it seemed to pass unnoticed. It was sort of the Braille version of these spots, a much kinder and gentler little drama.

I’m not buying into the argument that VW shouldn’t go the safety route because Volvo and others already own it. Everything is up for grabs these days, and certainly in the old days, the worry about Bugs was that they were little crumple machines. Is the crash scene too graphic to show in anything but a PSA? That’s probably not fair to say these days, either. Certainly, Europeans are more used to seeing this sort of thing in ads. I guess we have to make a cultural adjustment, given that these spots will fit right into the often frightening visual landscapes of shows like CSI and 24, on which they are running.

The fact that these Jetta spots for safety come after the “fast” strategy for the GTI is, granted, a bit schizophrenic and makes for some head-spinning. The “Make Friends With Your Fast” spots will no doubt pump the sales of the demonic, fast little critters on eBay. Purchase of the cars remains to be seen. I find the “Unpimp your ride” stuff with the German engineer (an Ali G. clone) more over-the-top annoying than funny: of course you’d want to buy a hot car from an insane, platinum-haired German engineer!

Obviously, VW’s problems are larger than mere advertising. The Jetta work is the most startling and powerful stuff ever to come out of CP+B. It will probably generate sales. And lawsuits, too.