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Nissan's Gentle Mr. K holds too many cards

By Published on .

Advertiser: Nissan Motor Corp. USA
Agency: TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.
Ad Review rating: 2 1/2 stars

A boy chasing a baseball wanders into a decrepit barn and stumbles not through a looking glass but a trapdoor into a wonderland of Nissan's automotive past.

"Welcome . . . to my garage," says an elderly Japanese character, based loosely on Nissan's visionary former executive Yutaka Kata-yama. "Go ahead. Look around!" The boy does, and he is impressed with a 1972 Datsun 240Z, a 1960 pickup and so forth.

"Any car can get you where you want to go," the gentle Mr. K explains, putting his arm on the boy's shoulder. "A special car gets you there with a smile on your face. Remember, young man, life is a journey. Enjoy the ride."

Yes, wise one, but I'm not allowed to talk to strangers, so letmeouttaheeeeeeeere!!!!!!!

"Dream Garage," from TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., is an ambitious attempt to begin cultivating a memorable brand personality, brand heritage and brand meaning for a brand that hasn't been a brand since the brand was called Datsun.

That's a tall order, of course, and there is no responsible way to judge, on the basis of one spot, a campaign that will involve scores of ads and $200 million. This leaves only the irresponsible way:

Advertising is a journey. And it's going to be a rough ride.

This introduction howls with blunders--blunders that may amount to nothing as the campaign evolves but which ominously recall the disastrous "Built for the human race" campaign with its self-absorbed yuppie "engineers" and their insufferable quality-circle jerk.

Sure, you've got to admire Nissan's guts in setting itself apart by embracing the Japanese-ness of the brand. This is a marketplace, after all, that ever since Mazda's ill-fated "Kansei engineering" has been frantically invoking images of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Ohio assembly plants to obscure the rising sun.

Credit also the bicoastal creative elites for biting their lips to propose the time-honored, but Midwestern and declasse, notion of a semi-fictional spokescharacter. Chiat advertising has been informed by many influences over the years; Clarence Birdseye has not been one of them.

And--presuming they will back up a particular Nissan claim on such things--they're off to an admirable start with "Enjoy the ride."

But at what risk? Putting aside the danger of stacking $200 million worth of eggs in the basket of one aging, mortal actor, let us consider how you cast such an actor. He must be not only venerable but lovable, non-threatening and provoking no anxiety whatsoever--racist or otherwise.

The template is Pat Morita in "The Karate Kid," but actor Dale Ishimoto is more like Sessue Hayakawa in "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Or worse. Entertaining little boys 10 stories below the Great Plains in a sinister subterranean lair, he's creepier than your average ad icon. Chef Boy-Ar-Dee doesn't use trapdoors.

Mr. K? More like Dr. No.

Beyond that, though, is the strategic risk: the danger that the folks at Nissan are far more consumed by Nissan's heritage than are American consumers. The entire creative concept seems to be forging links to the past that validate Nissan's claim of joyous motoring in the present. But can we be reacquainted with the spirit of a Yutaka Katayama we never knew existed?

What if Americans remain indifferent to the Datsunian past? It is, after all, not difficult to find automotive heritage.

Studebaker had plenty of it.

Copyright August 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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