Why New VW Ads Suffer From Attentional Inertia

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Client: VW Phaeton
Agency: Arnold, Boston
Star Rating: 1.5

Here comes the new VW Phaeton (rhymes with Satan), introduced by clever, solid print advertising and clever, terrible TV advertising.

The Phaeton TV spot is atrocious.

First the print. It's a minor miracle that VW hasn't resorted again and again over the years to referencing those iconic ads of the '60s, "Lemon" and "Think Small," that virtually defined the Creative Revolution. But here, at long last, is "Think Big."

Too massive
It's the same layout, the familiar sans serif type and the same background-less VW -- except this time the VW is too massive to be photographed whole. We see about 30% of the car stuffed within the frame. The copy straightforwardly explains the concept of a luxury VW, minus the arch tone of the Doyle Dane Bernbach classic. But no need for that; the wryness is in the mimicry itself.

A second ad shows a Phaeton side by side with an old Beetle. The headline: "It took us 54 years to grow one this big."

These executions are unassailable, capturing the spirit of the brand and dispensing the salient points within the strategy of appealing to VW owners whose affluence causes them to look upmarket elsewhere. It's good that the print is good, because the TV is atrocious.

Dead-on perfect parody
The debut spot -- all 90 seconds of it -- is a dead-on perfect sendup of a Nova-like science show, showing a psychological experiment at the fictional Gasloli Neurological Center, "where important progress is being made in our understanding on human cognition" and the effect called "attentional inertia." Through 50 seconds (unless you recognize the reference to VW brand marketing manager John Gasloli) it is impossible to know there's an ad gag afoot.

Then the payoff begins to emerge. A test subject named Matt, asked to identify various luxury cars with their logos concealed, cockily names Mercedes, BMW and Lexus. When the experiment is repeated -- with the VW logo now exposed -- he still mistakes the Phaeton for a Mercedes, BMW and Lexus. Attentional inertia. Ha ha.

How can a commercial that begins with such promise deteriorate so rapidly? But deteriorate it does. Here's why this spot is so gigantically wrong:

Self-defeating conclusion
A 90-second ad must not only hold your attention. It had better damn well be three times more compelling than a 30-second ad. This isn't even close. In fact, its enormously arresting beginning serves only to draws viewers into a self-defeating conclusion.

This Matt character is a broad yuppie stereotype, whose subtlety-free performance portrays the target buyer as a vain, arrogant jackass. Yeah, good thinking. Remember Apple's "Lemmings," which portrayed the target audience of IBM-using businessmen as suicidal rodents? A fiasco, of course.

Remember Audi?
Why in the world, if you're trying to sell a $50,000-plus car, would you want to position it as a pathetic lookalike? As VW surely must have learned from Audi's experience in the early 70s, "looks like a Mercedes" is not synonymous with "like a Mercedes." It's synonymous with "cheap knockoff."

There is but one explanation for these lapses: an agency so caught up in the high concept as to lose sight of the message. Or, as that's sometimes called:

Attentional inertia.