VW’s Super bowl ad will be the world’s most expensive at $10m – but will it do the business?

Roll up, roll up, for the most expensive ad in the world. Volkswagen is about to spend $10m on a single, minute-long airtime execution. Why so pricey? Well, it’s not production values that make it so – however meticulous the ad’s attention to detail – but the fact that it is airing during America’s premier annual sports fest, the Super Bowl, on February 3.

Some 110 million people will be watching, and airtime costs are ratcheted accordingly: this year a 30-second network TV spot is estimated to cost just shy of $4m. But it’s not simply the numbers – the eyes of one third of the USA upon them – that stokes pressure upon advertisers. The Super Bowl is also a gruelling creative showcase – more brutal than Cannes in its way – that can result in abject humiliation for those who get it wrong.

VW has much to play for. Its US agency, Deutsch LA, has set the bar high in recent years with such memorable (and prize-winning) campaigns as “The Force” (aka “Little Darth”) and the “The Bark Side” (where a dog gets fit by chasing a Beetle). This year it has junked the Star Wars theme for something altogether more experimental – indeed, weird.

“Get Happy” is all about a tall, Waspish mid-Westerner who inexplicably develops a broad Jamaican accent as he perambulates a typically gloomy Monday morning office relentlessly spreading cheer. With me so far? It only makes sense at the tail-end, when we see him driving up to a meeting in a brand-new red Beetle with two of his colleagues, one white, one Asian – by now similarly fluent in Jaamaaycaan. All that’s missing is the ganja smoke. Premise: driving a VW makes you happy.

Credit where credit is due, VW has never been one for the clichés of automobile advertising beloved of its sector: cut, for instance, to car snaking at high speed over the San Vitello pass, sun glinting on the windscreen; or some glamour-puss lolling over the car bonnet (I’ll come back to that in a moment). You know the kind of thing: huge production budget in search of a memorable idea, and failing sadly.

And, no doubt about it, the ad has been meticulously rehearsed and shot. It’s directed by the same man, Tom Kuntz, who did the classic “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Old Spice campaign featuring Isaiah Mustapha and a white horse. The attention to detail shows. Kuntz – who is rapidly shaping up as adland’s answer to Stanley Kubrick – is nothing if not an exacting taskmaster. Seven actors were stuck in a lift for four hours while he reshot the scene 100 times to achieve a perfect sense of Monday morning misery.

Does it work? The ad is certainly worth a second viewing, though whether it will have the repeat value of “The Force” remains to be seen. And there’s also the enigma of the Jamaican accent, which seems to have baffled some social media commentators. For reasons that remain obscure, they have found fault with the ad’s “racist message” (some people are just waiting to be offended) and made a far-flung connection with Hitler (Ferdinand Porsche, who invented the Beetle, was not a Nazi, but did collaborate, even helping to build the V1 “Flying Bomb”).

Which brings me back to cliché in motor advertising, and its virtue. Mercedes-Benz will also be spending a reputed $10m on a Super Bowl spot – but with a much simpler mechanism in mind. Mercedes’ problem – in the USA as elsewhere – is its lack of trendiness. It is admired by, and bought by, rich gits – a status symbol for the already-achieved rather than the aspirant. How to appeal to the under-thirties? Simples. Just drape a décolletée (is she ever anything else?) Kate Upton over the swankiest four-seater in your model range – and pray. It works wonders – on YouTube at any rate:

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About Stuart Smith

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Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.