Dude, Don’t You Hate Our Commercials?

At first, you think it must be a spoof. After all, it looks like all the other Volkswagen “Safe Happens” spots, the ones that caused so much controversy this spring by depicting casual conversations interrupted by graphic car crashes. But this time, the two women in the VW are having a casual conversation about, well, those VW commercials.

“So they’re driving along talking about whatever and suddenly, wham,” says the passenger. “I know, I saw it,” replies the driver. “Shocking for the sake of shocking,” suggests the first woman. “You think being in an accident isn’t a shock?” her friend asks.

But it soon becomes clear that these women are appearing in the very campaign they’re talking about. The passenger is still chatting (“Yeah, but you’re watching TV, a commercial comes on . . .”), when a careening SUV slams into her door. You almost have to wonder how she didn’t see it coming.

Like those before it, the spot, which broke last week, is the work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, arguably the hottest creative shop in the U.S. these days. Now consider its striking similarity to three other commercial-within-a-commercial spots that bowed last week, produced in-house by a tiny Florida healthcare company for $5,000 a pop.

Miralus is the maker of HeadOn, a headache remedy whose cheap-looking commercials, which debuted this June, became a cult phenom for their cheesy visuals and repetitive tagline, “HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead.” In the second phase of the effort, people are simply spliced into the original spots, proclaiming some version of: “I hate this commercial, but I love your product!”

Granted, the executions are miles apart. (You will not be hearing “apply directly to the forehead” at Cannes next year). But the conceit is the same: Grab consumer attention by acknowledging public feelings about your advertising practically in real time, a phenomenon suddenly possible thanks to sites like YouTube and MySpace that allow any buzzworthy ad—and viewer comments about it—to go instantly global. Think of it as interactive TV—no TiVo required.

“We hear a lot of feedback from people who say they just hate our ads, but they love our product,” said Dan Charron, vp of sales and marketing for Miralus. “That’s something we can capture and say, ‘Look, here’s America. This is the feedback we’re getting.'”

Although Miralus isn’t spending much on the campaign (about $3 million in measured media for the first two months of the effort, the most recent for which data is available, per TNS Media Intelligence), it gets a lot of bang for the buck by focusing mostly on cable news networks and game shows.

But like the original “Safe Happens” campaign, HeadOn has found a whole other life on YouTube, where it’s been viewed tens of thousands of times. It was also the topic of considerable press attention this summer. Spoofs of both campaigns are all over the Web.

CP+B’s Andrew Keller, creative director on the VW account, said he personally paid little attention to the uproar online about the earlier “Safe Happens” ads, but acknowledged that it made the new spot possible. “When I read the script, my first reaction was, ‘Can we do that?'” he laughed. “But with the amount of attention we had gotten, it wasn’t too unrealistic to think that people would get it.”

To be sure, it’s hardly the first time marketers have referenced their own ads. Alka- Seltzer last year remade its classic “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” spot to remind consumers of their history with the brand, and even Geico’s Gecko has already gone self-referential (“People trust advertising icons,” he asssures us). But Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, noted that new technology has sped up the process exponentially.

“It used to be that you do a campaign, it penetrates the culture, and then you build on that campaign,” he said. “But now the feedback loop is so accelerated that … an ad campaign goes on longer than the time it takes to have two generations of feedback on it.”

All of which begs the question, once a shop starts making commercials about its own commercials, does it run the risk of becoming an exercise in creative navel gazing? What exactly does this have to do with selling cars?

VW declined comment, but Keller claims it liked the idea “right away.” And for his part, he believes that viewers seeing Passat drivers having a conversation they themselves have had will further punctuate the safety message.

As for Miralus, Thompson said: “Let’s face it: A rub-on headache cream is a pretty silly-sounding thing. … But after you get their attention with a dopey, irritating commercial, you cash in on the recall with this guy interrupting and saying, ‘I’m with you. But for all the irritation, this product really works.'”

He even has a name for such bursts of credibility, when one breaks through the clutter and talks sincerely to the audience. He calls it, “The Oprah Moment.”