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.

Advertisement

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 columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.