‘People’ Power

New Saturn campaign—and tag—is satisfyingly simple

These new Saturn spots are a little smaller, more specific and less forced than previous commercials. And the simplification works, right down to the new tagline, “People first.”

It seems easy and obvious, but it’s the kind of organic, stripped-down line that takes a while to build up to. In 1990, the brand was launched by Hal Riney with the then-populist, “old values,” emotionally charged porch-front imagery, and the mouthful of “A different kind of company. A different kind of car.” When Goodby got the account two years ago, the tagline evolved to “It’s different in a Saturn.” But just as SNL’s famed Church Lady articulated the word “special” with the emphasis on what was unexpressed (“freak show”), the problem with “different” is that it can also be a mighty handy euphemism. For instance: “Is that another piercing in your septum? It’s so … different!”

By contrast, the way Apple uses “think” in front of “different” makes it active and automatically superior, as in, “Go ahead and differentiate your cool hipster self from the sad, aesthetically and technologically challenged, Mac-deprived masses.” Even taking “different” the right way, pointing out the “difference” with Saturn, was quickly losing its meaning, given that Saturn has by now inspired many other car companies to adopt its manufacturing, management and dealer techniques, and has achieved parity with lots of other cars in its class. At the same time, the new tagline works because the people ethos is the basis of the brand history, an honest selling point.

The tag flows naturally into the strategy of all three new spots. (Several more are in the pipeline, or in CGI land, and will be released in the next few months.) They are easy and honest—much as I liked the sweet, elegiac tone of last year’s “Beautiful” spot, it just didn’t connect, because while Saturns have many virtues, beautiful they are not.

Interestingly, “Sheet Metal,” the best Saturn commercial ever made (and one of the best commercials in general ever made), was virtually carless and focused on people, but turned them into mechanisms, part of a movement. Most consumers don’t want to feel that they are in lockstep with masses of others. These new spots go for the individual and warmly personal, restate the ethos in an interesting way, and by offering specific benefits, back it up with evidence.

“Philosophy” opens with a man saying, “Welcome to Saturn” to his twin as they shake hands, and we see successive cuts of identical twins greeting each other as car dealers and buyers. People seem to find twins endlessly fascinating (I know this because I have a twin brother, and we spent grade school getting asked if we were identical), and most of the bits here have enough detail to be quietly amusing. Like the twin brothers who are watching the ups and downs of the windshield wipers, following along as if at a tennis match.

To set off the funhouse aspect of the twins, the spot is set to ’60-ish, psychedelic Monkees music. “Happiness is all around,” we hear, with the hook repeating the words “happiness” and “joy.” (The spot seems to take place in a sealed-off, slowed-down alterna-universe, like the ones in the passing-through-high-school spots, except here the selling point is more direct.) “When you put people first, you treat them the way you’d want to be treated. No hassle, no haggle,” the voiceover says, simplifying the often intimidating buying experience into four memorable (and true) words.

“Door Music” is the only spot without the retro-popish music. Rather, the music comes from car doors getting hit by varied objects, and the sound is made by the rhythms and patterns of the hits, which is sort of Stomp-ish. Of course, two years ago, when Nike made “Freestyle,” some critics argued that the spot was derivative and that it was too late to be riffing on Stomp. It’s never too late if it’s done well, and while the idea of such a demo to show dent-resistant side panels isn’t exactly new or innovative, it’s done in a hip and entertaining way. Some of the stuff that hits is the usual (balls, garbage can, grocery carts) and some isn’t (a bus, a bicyclist). The capper is that the kitchen sink literally gets thrown in, a nice touch.

“Convoy” starts with a shot of a car backing out of a driveway, which is the same opening as “Sheet Metal” (except here we have a woman in her SUV). It’s the quintessential suburban act, so it works as an opener every time. “Come on, let’s go, let’s not talk about tomorrow” the loopy singers urge as this woman is followed by a fleet of emergency services: police, fire truck, EMS vehicle and tow truck.

She is an individual leading her troops (the lyrics really get weird when the sopranos sing, “You know who you are, and I like what you wear”), and rather than just showing the streets and the architectural loops, the spot also follows the crew as they tag along behind the woman in the supermarket line (the EMS guy stands there with his First Aid box, a clever idea) and at a diner. They get up en masse when she leaves.

“When you put people first, you make sure help is never far away. Saturn now offers OnStar …” the announcer tells us as we see the caravan heading back to the suburban driveway, making sure she’s snugly and safely home. These are new old values: popu-luxe.