Volkswagen rescues a cubicle slave.

Advertising deconstructed.
Jan. 6 2003 11:25 AM

Freed by the Beetle

Volkswagen rescues a cubicle slave.

VW Beetle Convertible makes ELO cool
VW Beetle Convertible makes ELO cool

When the discriminating readers of the "Ad Report Card" kindly volunteer opinions that form a consensus about a given ad, the consensus is usually that the ad stinks. But lately I've been getting e-mail that pretty consistently praises an ad for the new VW Beetle Convertible. This sort of thing doesn't happen often, so the spot is worth a look—not least because I think the readers are right about it. You can see it here, via Volkswagen's Web site (click "See the commercial").

The ad depicts an endless series of more or less interchangeable days in the life of a young office worker. With lots of jump cuts and split screens, we see him waking up at 7:30, picking out a shirt and tie from his variations-on-a-theme wardrobe, riding an escalator in a big, anonymous office tower, pouring himself coffee, shuffling papers, loping through the cubicle jungle, staring out the window in an endless sea of nearly identical windows. Then the process starts over, again and again. The background music is a thoroughly upbeat number that sounds like some forgotten bit of British Invasion ephemera; it's actually an Electric Light Orchestra tune called "Mr. Blue Sky." There's one moment in the ad when our hero looks out his window and sees a pretty young woman—but something about the glass and space that divides them makes their look seem like little more than a daydream. Then he sees something else: A new VW Beetle Convertible wheeling out of the parking lot. The music hits an elegiac crest. The car pulls away and we look back at the young man: If there is hope for him, it seems, this car is it.

The spot's effectiveness is all in the rhythm and pacing—and it's quite effective. The kid is likable, so we're sort of rooting for him, but he seems trapped, somebody stuck in a huge transparent cage, looking for signs of life out there to latch onto. (The ad is titled "Bubble Boy.") That killer ride in the parking lot is his beacon of hope. Of course, he'll have to keep working to buy one, and on some level there's something depressing about a material object as the only source of meaning in life, but, hey, come on, that's the whole point of advertising.

Anyway, the soundtrack is a highlight for a couple of reasons. One is that the upbeat music both takes the edge off the grim scenes of climate-controlled cube life and suggests that something will happen to reveal the "blue sky" referred to in the lyrics. The other reason is the simple fact that it's a tune by, of all bands, ELO. This means that the music is neither an attempt to repurpose a countercultural anthem, nor an attempt to break a new act—the two most common tactics with pop music in commercials nowadays. Instead it gives new life to an old song by—let's face it—a band that most people think is a joke (if they think of ELO at all). The idea is that if there's anything cooler than being the sort of person who is first to discover a hip new band, it's being the sort of person who has the taste to find a gem that's hidden in plain sight.

One last point about this ad: Even today, a lot of commercials targeting or featuring young people seem to use a circa 1999 template—a new generation that rejects old work and spending paradigms and demands total freedom, etc. This ad goes the other direction, and faces the reality that, in the end, what a lot of young people have to do is, you know, get a job, and find solace in the form of a snappy convertible. Maybe some things never change.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

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