Lippert’s Critique: Crispin Catches Talk Show Bug

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Resurrecting the iconic 1964 model, this new campaign for the “people’s car” (the Volkswagen Beetle), from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, features the tagline “It’s what the people want.” Very much in line with Crispin’s past work for the carmaker, it’s odd and surprising and will no doubt generate talk.

But all of that is not always positive, because it will also engender many questions, as Dr. Z, the CEO turned German caricature who briefly starred in BBDO’s Chrysler commercials two years ago, might have put it. Herr Doktor stood for German efficiency, but as a character in ads was eighty-sixed pretty quickly. Crispin also created a VW campaign around a caricature of a crazy German hipster-type engineer a couple of years back in a “pimp my ride” takeoff that was arch and insider-ish but didn’t seem to move the sales needle much, either.

So it seems that this time around, the creative team is going for edgy lite. Forty-four years after its birth, the bug has been rechristened, improbably enough, as a talking car named Max, a comedian/talk-show host who interviews guests while speaking English with a German accent. It’s a sound closer to Mel Brooks as the 2,000-year-old man than an SS officer.

But as far as today’s young American drivers would know, Max could be a 2,000-year-old car. Will they really be interested in buying a new Beetle as a result of seeing a talking bug from 1964? Sure, the car looks iconic, but I would think it resonates only with twentysomethings who work in advertising, because they’ve been taught, rightly, to revere DDB’s “Think Small” print ads.

Otherwise, from a strictly visual point of view, the car looks antique and cartoony, all round and sweet, like an old Muppet. In fact, the staging, with its array of visitors sidling up to Max’s bumper, reminds me of unexpected stars animatedly interacting with The Count on Sesame Street, except Jim Henson’s version was more clever.

Still, like the Muppets, these spots are innocuous and amusing, with just enough double entendres to appeal to grown-ups. Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, the interchanges will be seen as some sort of meta-joke on the cliched nature of the mutual fawning sessions that talk-show hosts tend to indulge in with their guests. (Billy Crystal’s “You look mahvelous!” was based on the same premise.)

Most surprising to me was how embarrassing the spot with Heidi Klum turned out to be. She, of course, has brought her own German efficiency and way with an “Auf wiedersehen” to hosting the hit reality show Project Runway. The visual joke is that she embarrasses Max by stroking his trunk (um, yup) and telling him that “German engineering is so sexy!” as he blushes, turning from black to red. This color change perfectly matches her Christian Louboutin platform shoes, which are black patent leather with a red sole and red-and-black heel. In order to make this color combo clear, for both the car and the shoes, the director had to use some strange angles, which are not particularly flattering. The final title card reads “Hot for German Engineering,” a line that left me a bit verklempt.

The Bobby Knight spot is funnier because it makes fun of what he does in real life: throw chairs. But the best of the bunch, shockingly enough, features The Hoff. After all, David Hasselhoff is a guy who has already proven he can hold his own with a talking car. And what is genuinely funny is that they compare hugeness in Europe, where both are popular. And then Max is bold enough to point out that, unlike himself, Hasselhoff is not big in Brazil. The Hoff is genuinely offended. The band is silent. The timing really works. And then we get the “Huge in Europe” title card. It doesn’t seem much of a selling point.