On the Offensive

Ladies and gentlemen, the technology offensive has begun,” a man with a shaved head and a sharp black suit says as he addresses a packed crowd in a sleek, screen-covered auditorium. He speaks with a slight but attention-getting German accent: “Observe: Laser-guided adaptive cruise control, a rearview camera … headlights that turn to illuminate your problem curves …” As he continues to list the features of the competition’s luxury SUV, and beauty shots of the RX 330 are flashed, like Miss Universe, on the multiple screens, an alarming figure stands up on stage to quiet him. The interrupter has a much more ominous mien and a stronger (read: scarier) German accent: “Enough!” he shouts in exasperation. “So what do we do now?” he says. “What do we do now?”

Apologize? Just kidding—that would be General Motors. We’ll get back to this brilliantly unapologetic Lexus work shortly. But first let’s take a detour to the ditch in which the recent GM corporate-image ad has inexplicably plunged itself, wheels spinning. It’s not often that the world’s largest automaker gets down and begs for forgiveness, or even pity, without so much as a federal investigator in sight. Maybe GM just wants to feel part of the sweeping mea culpa trend, to join ranks with the New York Times, Sammy Sosa, et. al.

The GM ad reminds me of the old heart-tugging, tear-inducing “Joey Called” AT&T commercial. Except this time the questions come not from the caring husband to his crying wife but rather from the puzzled reader to GM: “Anybody indicted on tax fraud?” No. “Embezzling?” No. “Cars blowing up?” No. “Then why are you crying?” GM answers haltingly, with a tissue to its face: “We just wanted to say we used to stink!” Before this campaign, I was under the impression that GM cars had improved a lot in the past 10 years. But from looking at the dark clouds in the photo and the super-lugubrious headline, “The Longest Road in the World Is the Road to Redemption,” I would have to revise that and agree: They must still stink! Even if the ad is only 5 percent mea culpa, readers won’t wait to see the 95 percent. What’s more, if I had bought a Buick LeSabre, say, eight or nine years ago, and I saw that the company is just now admitting that the car is total crap, I’d want to sue.

But back to our show—and to the other, haughty extreme, with Lexus’ theme line, “Putting the world on notice.” It sounds smug, but the idea is realized in a way that allows the car’s product benefits to be paraded effortlessly.

Each of three spots uses the same device: People who work at the automotive competition in Bavaria, Germany, in Torino, Italy, and in Coventry, England, meticulously assess the vehicle, feature by feature. After taking stock, the rivals want to weep.

The most riveting spot is the aforementioned “Auditorium.” It’s gorgeously architectural to look at and impossible not to listen to. Because when the guy with the heavy German accent interrupts (Achtung!), we realize the hall is filled with engineers squirming in their seats. It’s the harshest and the most xenophobic of the three—I came away thinking, “Yeah, we really showed those Germans!” Then I remembered the car is Japanese.

The other two spots are also cinematic but more friendly and genial. In the Italian version, “Test Track,” a group of engineers and drivers takes the vehicle around a race track. “It’s powerful, it’s beautiful. How did they make it so incredibly smooth?” the boss asks. He turns to an underling and asks, “Antonio, tonight you drive my car again?” and peels homeward in the Lexus.

The funniest is “Clean Room,” the English one. It opens inside a sterile-looking room in an automotive research facility in the countryside. Engineers are performing exploratory surgery on the new vehicle, and some of their findings are broadcast over an in-house sound system. They’re like a bunch of elves with different kinds of accents (cockney to plummy) as they plunge their noses inside the “premium leather” seats, ooh and aah over the Mark Levinson audio system (it adjusts itself to the number of people in the car) and go gaga over the rear backup camera. The guy in the jumpsuit with his head near the tailpipe finds himself being photographed by said camera, so that his image appears on the navigation screen up front. “Hi Mum!” he says. It’s beautifully timed and paced, and underscores that no matter how sophisticated one might be about engineering and technology, we all get excited to see ourselves on screen, even if it’s catching yourself on the video monitor at CVS.

The Lexus work is compelling—it sells all these breakthrough features in an entertaining way. And that’s why people will want to buy the car. Because they’re excited about it, not because they feel sorry for the company.