Your Cheatin' Cart
The problem with Hummer's new ad.
Spot: "Big Race" (You can view it here).
Product: The Hummer H2 sport utility vehicle.
Synopsis: A moody-looking tween enters a soapbox derby. The car he builds looks remarkably like a Hummer H2, except much smaller (it could fit in the H2's wheel well) and made of wood (instead of ballistic chromified Kevlar or whatever).
At the start line, the kid's unorthodox, cobbled-together car gets snickered at. When the race begins, the other kids—in sleek, low-to-ground soapbox racers—speed down the winding pavement. The Hummer kid—in his big-wheeled contraption—veers off-road, cuts straight across all the switchbacks, careens back onto the pavement at the last instant, and crosses the finish line first.
(In the 60-second version, we also learn that the kid got the wood for the car by dismantling a doghouse. With the dog still in it.)
Analysis: This is an incredibly well made ad. I hate it.
The music is the Who's "Happy Jack," which is sort of a brilliant choice. On one level, the song tugs at boomers who rocked out to it in the '60s. But there's an ancillary target: The tune's stripped-down, British Invasion sound would fit right in on the Rushmore soundtrack, giving it some resonance with a younger crowd. (Rushmore actually used a different Who song from the same album.)
For sheer entertainment value, this is a fantastic commercial. Visually arresting. Engrossing narrative. (And an unexpectedly wussy, un-Hummer-y art-house pedigree: It was directed by the guy who did Shine, and the ad's cinematographer worked on Amélie.) Plus, of course, the kick-ass Who song. My problem is with its underlying ethics.
1. The Hummer kid cheats. Yes, the company's Web site offers "thinking outside the box" justifications, pointing out that the race rules are just "First one down wins." But I don't buy it. He fails to stay on a clearly demarcated course. In my book, that's an automatic DQ. Anyway, the off-road driving didn't even look that treacherous—I bet the regular cars could have handled it, too, if their drivers were little cheating brats. Were I the other kids, I would have ripped the wheels off the soapbox Hummer and beat the cheater about the head with them.
2. He endangers other racers. His car is much bigger and heavier, with a higher center of gravity. At one point, only minimally in control of his vehicle, drunk on the overconfidence he draws from his outsized deathmobile, the Hummer kid hurtles across the road right as the rest of the pack is passing. He just barely misses crushing another kid's car, and possibly spine.
3. What about the poor dog? We see it left abandoned in its now-useless doghouse, peering sadly through gaping holes where the slats the kid stole used to be. Conclusion: The Hummer kid hoards earth's precious resources, sating his own vanity at the expense of less fortunate, voiceless members of society.
Of course, some will love the shameless Hummer kid and his take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs individualism. Not coincidentally, these are the sort of people who buy Hummers. It would make no sense for the company to aim this spot at folks craving a quiet, go-along-get-along image, because those people aren't buying 40-ton cars. The Hummer kid is a me-first kid, and the Hummer is without doubt a me-first vehicle.
But the company tries to have it both ways. By showing us that the kid has devised a novel race strategy, worked hard to build his ramshackle entry, and gotten ridiculed at the start line, Hummer tries to steal back a little respect and good will. The ad also lets the Hummer buyer spin his purchase as an act of clever outsiderism, recasting his inner bully as a scrappy underdog. It failed to convert me, but then I drive a 1992 Honda Accord.
As the kid crosses the finish line, the Who sings, "And they couldn't prevent Jack from feeling happy," and that's an appealing notion: No one can stop me from being happy, once I've got my Hummer. No one, I tell you! To my eyes, though, as the kid closes out his no doubt soon-to-be-disputed soapbox victory, he looks less happy than determined and grim.
Grade: B. Probably the most memorable car ad since Volkswagen's "Mr. Blue Sky" spot. Points off for moral bankruptcy.