What's so great about Lexus' on/off button?

What's so great about Lexus' on/off button?

What's so great about Lexus' on/off button?

Advertising deconstructed.
May 16 2005 11:08 AM

Lexus Tech

What's so great about a car with an on/off button?

Ice cave The Spot: A lone adventurer scales the jagged walls of a desolate ice cave. He drills through the ancient frost to reveal a buried metal button, marked "ENGINE START/STOP." He presses the button. Whoosh! Cut to some smoking-hot footage of a Lexus GS sports car.

Most car ads are awful. And—perhaps the greater sin—indistinguishable. Here's an SUV churning up mud in Monument Valley. There's a luxury sedan roaring across a barren salt flat. Dissolve to finance numbers and fine print. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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At least Lexus is trying. The opening moments in all three of these new ads (in addition to the ice climber, there's a spot with a scuba diver and another with a high-tech cat burglar) make you stop and pay attention. They boast fantastic locations: a genuine 10,000-year-old ice cave in British Columbia; an underwater trench off the coast of Oahu; an atrium inside the Vancouver Art Museum. The cinematography is sharp and striking, and I particularly love the sound effects. Crampons crunching into ice pack. Bubbles escaping from dive masks. (I'm less fond of the closing soundtrack, which is a luxury car cliché: classical music with a drumbeat.)

The whole campaign feels extremely 007. And so it was no surprise when Lexus' ad agency, Team One, actually used the term "James Bond-ian" to describe the aesthetic they were aiming for. They wanted the ads to promise excitement—and refinement.

Of course, that's the sweet spot for any luxury sports car. (Team One says the redesigned GS will compete most directly with the BMW 5 Series and the Infiniti M45.) I am not the target market here—I currently drive a '96 Saturn with a last-legs muffler and some brutal fender scrapes—but I still get the general idea. Team One says they're trying to reach "people who want to reward themselves for the success that they've achieved."

Under water Sounds good. And I'm coolio with both their strategy and their execution. Right up until that "ENGINE START/STOP" button comes on the scene.

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Oh, the button. Let me explain why Lexus is crazy to center an entire campaign around it:

1) Team One says the button represents just how technologically kick-ass the new Lexus GS is. I say they've grossly miscalculated. This is not an awe-inspiring, super-high-tech feature. This is a button. The fact that Lexus designed an on/off button does not move me to bow before their engineering prowess.

If we were really getting James Bond-ian, the button would fire missiles or release oil slicks or something. But I can't find these in any of the options packages.

2) Anyway, what's the big deal? First of all, this is not the only car with an on/off button (even direct competitor Infiniti has one). Second of all, so what? What's so great about pressing a button instead of turning a key? Will turning a key lead to degenerative wrist pain or something? No? Then I'll stick with the key, thank you. I like the key fine.

3) A few of my readers feel there's an embarrassing contradiction at the heart of the ads. That being: An engine on/off button is about total ease. You don't even have to turn a key! And yet these ads are all about triumphing over hyper-difficult challenges—ice caves and sea trenches and whatnot. There's a fundamental discord there. If the point is how luxuriously lazy the button is and how it's the ultimate in convenience, then why spend half the ad trudging up a slippery, treacherous ice cliff? In the art museum spot, the cat burglar actually evades high-tech security devices to reach the button—when the very raison d'être of the button is that it cuts through all the security obstacles and tucks them out of view.

I asked Team One to address this discord, and they got, in my opinion, a bit huffy. They said the opening scenarios were about "excitement" and "exhilaration" and that they really didn't see any contradiction here. They directly equate the rush of ice climbing with the rush of driving the Lexus GS.

Whatever. The real subtext of the ads—an interpretation that Team One either subconsciously repressed or doesn't want to own up to—is that after you've conquered the ice cave (read: worked for three years at McKinsey) you deserve a little push-button, no-hassle ease.

Grade: B- Whatever you may think of the ads, that car looks mighty sleek. I'd really love to gun it across a salt flat, had I a spare $45,000 (and a spare salt flat).