The Missing Link

Every once in a long while, a commercial comes along that inspires jaw-dropping awe and envy around the world.

Last spring, the talk of every ad town from Los Angeles to Sydney was Honda’s famed “Cog” spot from Wieden + Kennedy in London. Directed by Partizan’s Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, the two-minute Accord ad features a brilliant, painstakingly produced Rube Goldberg-like chain reaction of car parts, beginning with a single cog rolling along a hardwood floor and ending with a fully assembled car, a voiceover that says, “Isn’t it nice when things just … work?” and the tagline, “Honda. The power of dreams.”

The spot broke (and traversed the globe virally) just as the award-show season was kicking off last year. It won a gold Lion at Cannes in June, and nearly a year later, it is still sweeping the shows. Last month it won the $50,000 Grandy at The International Andy Awards, and just last Friday it won Best of Show at The One Show. That followed nods from Kinsale, the London International Advertising Awards, International Automotive Advertising Awards and the British Television Advertising Awards, to name a few.

One Show judge Ari Merkin, ecd of Fallon in New York, says, ” ‘Cog’ had me completely engaged for a full two minutes—not an easy thing to do when all of the talent in the spot is behind the camera. ‘Cog’ has an almost hypnotic effect on the viewer.”

In this magazine, creative luminaries from Neil French to John Hegarty have cited “Cog” as the spot they wish they had made. This week, Clio TV jury chairman Bob Isherwood tells Mae Anderson, “It’s one of those ads that you will look back in 10 years’ time and still reference it” (see page 29).

I haven’t heard that kind of reverence bestowed on “Lamp,” Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Ikea spot. So why, exactly, did “Lamp” beat out “Cog” for the Grand Prix at Cannes last year?

Not to take anything away from Crispin (I walked around for weeks saying, “You crazy,” in my best Swedish accent), but “Cog” was heavily favored, and for good reason. Steve Rabosky, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi in L.A. and a Cannes film juror last year, says now that “Cog” was “fresher, more original.” Yet at the time, Rabosky and 19 of his 21 fellow jurors chose not to vote for it to win the top prize. There were questions about just how original it was.

The festival had already weathered a controversy in print. The jury’s first choice for that Grand Prix, an ad for a Portuguese bookstore, was disqualified because it hadn’t used paid media. Another contender, a New Zealand campaign for an insect spray, was criticized as a Gary Larson ripoff (it lost the print Grand Prix but won in outdoor). The last thing the film jury needed was another bump in the road.

But sure enough, two Swiss filmmakers had complained that “Cog” was nothing more than an unauthorized commercial adaptation of an art film they made. They had threatened Honda with a lawsuit. Given what had happened in print, the issue came up early on in the jury room, says Rabosky. In the end, he recalls, the jury wasn’t “comfortable giving it the Grand Prix if there was going to be this continued controversy around it.”

That’s a shame, particularly since the controversy died down. Wieden creative director Tony Davidson later readily admitted that the spot was “inspired” by the film, but the filmmakers’ lawsuit never materialized, and “the whole issue has gone away,” Rabosky says.

Just in time for “Cog” to get the recognition it so richly deserves.