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Saturn's 'Sheet Metal' Spot is a Triumph

By Published on .

Advertiser: Saturn Corp.'s L-Series
Agency: Silverstein, Goodby & Partners, San Francisco
Star Rating: 4.0

The anatomy of a triumph begins with a question. What would constitute a perfect Saturn automobile campaign? It must:

  1. Make the cars seem stylish, youthful and maybe even elegant, vs. how they are currently perceived, which is dowdy. In this space we recently called Saturn the brown shoe of the American automobile industry. We herewith apologize for that vile slander. Saturn isn't a brown shoe; it is the Birkenstock sandal of the automobile industry. At least, till now. The L-Series, the Ion compacts and the Vue SUV should improve the image.

  2. Take the focus slightly off the company and its long-cultivated folksiness, which attracted certain core buyers but disaffected many others. The very same values that made Saturn appealing to middle-aged, female Consumer Reports subscribers made it uninteresting, even emasculating to men. Please note: There is a Ferrari Testorosa, but no Ferrari Estrogena.

  3. Retain the brand's reputation for customer service. The Saturn showroom is one of the few car stores where you can safely bend down to pick up a set of dropped keys. This is a priceless brand benefit.

  4. Also retain a touch of the brand's quirkiness. Just an eensy-weensy little bit. The trick is to be a smidge irreverent without being unserious, a touch odd without being weird. Like the difference between, say, John Madden and Michael Jackson.

  5. Establish, once and for all, some sex appeal.

OK, you can forget No. 5. That's like trying to establish sex appeal for a Sears outdoor shed or Sen. Joe Lieberman. Let's just get the thing handsome on its own terms, OK?

This brings us to the new work from Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco: a brand-image anthem and three (so far) awkward individual spots for the midsize L-series.

Lush cinematic style
The basic idea for the L-Series was to film some everyday activity -- buying gas, returning a video, washing the car -- in a lush cinematic style associated with the most elegant of luxury cars. The disconnect is intended to itself make the connection: "Everyday, meet elegant." Thus Saturn's new positioning: the synthesis of utility and style.

Unfortunately, the spots are encumbered with narrative elements that obscure the message. For instance, at the car wash, the guy opens the power window and gets his wife soaked. This is meant to suggest spontaneous joie de vivre, but really it's just distracting. We're told these spots are being overhauled, however, so permit us to ignore them for the branding spot, a work of genuine genius.

This won't take long. It's a sweeping montage of the streets of the city. Commuters, children headed for school, freeway traffic -- the whole driving tableau, over a gentle piano etude, minus only one thing: vehicles. There are none. Everybody is just walking, like the guy in the opening shot backing out of his driveway, on foot. Only at the end are we presented with three very pretty Saturns, and this:

'We don't see sheet metal'
"When we design cars, we don't see sheet metal. We see the people who may someday drive them. Introducing the redesigned L-series, the Vue and the all-new Ion. It's different in a Saturn."

The strategy is routine pre-emption of a car-marketing commonplace to which Saturn has more credibility than most to stake its claim. The strategy's expression, however, is a rare, irresistible masterpiece.

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