Having produced two of the best car commercials of the past five years -- in fact, two of the best car commercials ever -- the Honda team at Wieden & Kennedy, London, has suddenly revealed itself to be shockingly, heartbreakingly, irredeemably ... mortal.
Sigh. It was nice while it lasted.
"It," of course, being the transcendent genius that produced "Cog," documenting a sprawling Rube Goldberg device fashioned entirely out of Honda parts, and "Grrr," the optimistic Garrison Keillor ditty sung and hummed to cheerful "Yellow Submarine"-ish animation. These were both breathtaking pieces, as true to their respective selling premises as they were captivating to watch -- over and over and over again.
The principals would be forgiven for imagining any extravagant premise they lovingly midwifed into reality would be an equal tour de force.
That would explain last year's "The Impossible Dream," an amusing but fundamentally empty exercise in production spectacle, in which a mustachioed '70s refugee rides a race car, a motorcycle, a speedboat and a hot-air balloon in a quixotic pursuit of we're-not-quite-sure-what. Perfection, maybe. Although we're pretty sure the song, and the character who sings it, is synonymous with noble failure.
So, yeah, thanks for the fun, everybody. But the point was ... ?
Now, from yet another elaborate production, comes yet a more dismal result. The new spot is titled "Hondamentalism," which, take our word for it, is by far the best thing about it. The catchphrase nicely captures Honda's positioning of cutting no corners to provide cars that simply work. And while the coinage is self-consciously contrived, it doesn't make the "Fahrvergnugen" mistake -- i.e., capturing the brand essence but sounding completely unserious about it.
No, the mistake of this spot is taking itself far too seriously.
For 60 seconds -- 60 excruciating seconds -- we have to sit through a tortured visual metaphor for Honda's painstaking design determination: five lab-coated engineers trying to run down a road with wind-tunnel-force resistance pushing them back.
They grimace. They struggle. Their faces are grotesquely distorted. Honda's U.K. tagline is "The Power of Dreams," but these people are trapped in a nightmare with synthesized minor chords blaring in the background, like E. Power Biggs Live at the River Styx.
To this, Garrison Keillor observes: "An engineer once said, 'To build something great is like swimming in honey.'" Yeah, well, maybe so. But explain please the advantage of making the audience feel all stymied and helpless themselves.
Achieving automotive paradise
The idea -- such that it is -- would seem to be that these folks are not just determined but fanatically determined Hondamentialists who will spare no effort to achieve automotive paradise. Again, it's not quite clear what paradise would be. Presumably it's a dependable, affordable, high-performance subcompact -- although in the final shot, one of the engineers has grown calm as he reaches beatifically toward a shimmering red heaven. Is it God? Is it a defective plasma screen?
Is it the blood oozing from the blown aneurysm of some poor sucker who couldn't bear watching this thing?
Speaking of paradise and blood, by the way, maybe this is not the moment in history to be invoking any kind of �amentalism to sell cars. This catchphrase would be much better shortened simply to Hondamentals. And Wieden would be well-advised to get back to those Hondamentals as soon as possible.