Ticket to Ride

Waiting for 8 Mile to start at my local Loews, I was barely paying attention to the endless stream of ear-cracking but underwhelming trailers and ads when this teaser for the new VW Beetle convertible jumped off the screen.

And that’s amazing, considering that in this ad, the tedium is the message. Promoting a Bug that will be unveiled at next month’s Detroit Auto Show, it features another kind of white boy entirely, an earnest-seeming recent college grad now toiling away in Dilbertville.
The initial excitement of having a job that comes with a desk and a nameplate (“Bill Briggs”?the actor’s real name) has worn off. Briggs evokes more than a hint of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock?little did he realize that his office life would become so plastic. Like a hamster in a cheerless Habitrail, our lowly office assistant gets up, dons the drip-dry white shirt and tie, makes coffee, goes to his cubicle, eats prepackaged food, prepares to Xerox by removing a staple and goes home.

The visuals are genius in suggesting world-weariness, from the detail of the aforementioned staple to the bleached, worn-out look of the entire spot. The sense of deadening is especially apparent in the opening shot of the glass office towers, the scale so vast and dehumanizing that I thought they might be in Brasilia. (It was actually shot in San Francisco and L.A.) Then there’s the monotonous cycle, day after day repeated in tight shots and cuts; sometimes the same scene is multiplied on a split screen. Bill’s office has an anorexic plant, and at one point the screen is divided into four shots of the same sickly plant?suggesting that fall, winter, spring and summer pass with no change.

The anomie is quite poetic, actually. At one point Billy boy sees an attractive young woman across the way, in another office building, but goes back to his papers. It even suggests T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” whose life was presented not in tight shots or single cuts but “measured out in coffee spoons.” Eliot writes, “For I have known the evening, mornings, afternoons …”

Lest you think the kid is severely in need of Prozac rather than a new convertible, all this visual ennui is in complete juxtaposition with the music: the light and happy, almost ridiculously upbeat “Mr. Blue Sky,” an Electric Light Orchestra track re recorded by Jeff Lynne for the spot. (This Beetle commercial also has a few “Beatle” allusions?there’s the song, which sounds like it could have come off the Sgt. Pepper album, Bill’s moptop hairdo and the screen divided in quarters, the graphic device featured on the cover of Let It Be.)

The spot is beautifully cut to the beat of the song (which has a marching quality) and ends with Bill standing in a covered, rusted walkway between buildings (literally left hanging), spotting something below and reaching toward it as the song reaches its liturgical climax. In the first version of the tease, we don’t see the object of his excitement, and it ends with “The New Beetle Convertible” supered on the screen. In the second version, to debut soon, we get a split-second shot of the convertible, packed with people and heading out of the parking lot.

The spot is called “Bubble,” and indeed the VW Beetle is the ultimate car of the bubble economy. The redesigned automotive icon was rereleased to huge buzz and media love in 1998, and its success grew with the dot-com explosion of 1999 and 2000. Beetle sales are down about 25 percent this year, but the hope is that this new design will re-energize interest.

Certainly, the spot portrays life after the bubble has burst. So it’s even more apt that VW has blown the roof off the Bug.