19 September 2010

'Banned' TV Car Commercial Really Smart!

The Detroit News

Nobody banned this commercial from American television, any more than the back seat was banned from Smart cars. It was just never supposed to be there.

The ad is a killer, though -- 40 clever seconds of what seems like classic back-seat mayhem from the movies, even though every second was created for the spot.

It's a great example of how to turn a potential flaw into an attribute, and of how a few keystrokes on the Internet can turn something benign into a potential outlet for outrage. Why just post a video when you can pretend the networks or the government didn't want anyone to see it?

Banned? Hardly. Produced for German movie theaters when the second generation of Smarts came to the European market nearly four years ago, it was so loved by dealers that it wound up on TV in Italy and more European countries than its creator can remember.

At one auto show, says Toygar Bazarkaya of the BBDO ad agency in New York, the spot was projected onto the inside of the taped-up windshield of a Smart. The manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz, called it "the smallest movie theater in the world."
Up and down popularity

Things have been going somewhat downhill for the Smart, my favorite 8-foot-10-inch, two-passenger automobile.

I'm noticing more of them on the road, which is a good thing if they make you smile, and a very good thing if you're Roger Penske and you're running SmartUSA out of a row of offices behind the dealership in Bloomfield Hills. But in truth, U.S. sales peaked in the Smart fortwo's first year on the market, 2008, and haven't come close to those 24,622 units since.

Massive buzz and $4-a-gallon gasoline helped fuel the bonanza early on. Now that all the people who were entranced with the car have had a chance to buy one, practicality has set in.

If you've never driven a Smart, you don't realize how astonishingly roomy it is. The whole thing, after all, is two seats. And Smart owners will tell you that if a car with minimal luggage space suits your needs 90 percent of the time, it is by definition practical.

But still: There's no back seat. Never mind how rarely some people use the back seat or even notice it's there, the absence looms large.

That's why the client came to Bazarkaya and said, "Do something great."
Ad's German 'engineer'

He's a 42-year-old German, recently reassigned as an executive creative director in New York after having worked in the United States from 1997 to 2004. When he oversaw the Smart ad, he was back in Germany, where everyone knew what the car was and there were no fresh facts worth trumpeting.

Instead of getting technical, he says, "we thought of the worst thing you could ever communicate, and made it our strength." Put a mob hit man or a lurking stranger or a hockey-mask-wearing slasher in the rear of the car, fire up a tension-building sound track, and then cap 40 seconds of pretend rampage with a tagline: "No backseats. The Smart fortwo. Open your mind."

Among the tricks was to make a low-budget production look like a collection of reasonably high-budget film clips. The actors worked cheap, if they were even actors; the nodding man in the first scene was a Hamburg cabdriver, the man with the knife at the end was the sound mixer, and that's Bazarkaya with the glasses and curly hair, wielding the syringe.

"We're proud of who we are," he says. (That's a reference to the cars, not the homicidal tendencies.) "We don't have a back seat. So what? We're not going to pretend to have it."

He's mystified as to why anyone would claim the commercial was banned, but pleased that it's still circulating online. He's even considering buying a Smart for himself, though it'll take some more internal debate before he writes the check.

Like so many New Yorkers, he's already getting by with no backseats -- or for that matter, any seats at all.

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