Passat, not drivers, is what's really wanted

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Advertiser: Volkswagen of America
Agency: Arnold Communications, Boston
Ad Review rating: Two and 1/2 stars

There are three basic ways to sell cars on TV. One is to talk about the car.

Lexus does this quite well, mainly because its cars offer plenty to talk about. Nissan, by contrast, is stuck with a line of old models, so is forced onto a second path: talking about the automotive experience. It invokes bird poop and panting dogs to suggest a special affinity with driving and all that goes with it.

Then there is the third way to do car commercials: talking about the driver, using images and situations with demographic and emotional relevance to the consumer. This is what Arnold Communications, Boston, has chosen for the introduction of the new Volkswagen Passat. The result is a "Drivers wanted" spinoff subtitled "Living large," a campaign that is neither very good nor very bad.

There are three spots. One focuses on a young man debating whether to continue sowing wild oats or to marry his girlfriend. Another is about guy who, at the age of fortysomething, first tastes rhubarb pie, inspiring him to seek out other new experiences. And the best shows a middle-age single mom about to drive to a date, amused that her teen-age daughter will be anxiously waiting up late for her return.

Very nice. Very credible. Very AT&T. Many a consumer will relate to this woman, but how does that relate to the car? Answer: Not much.

Look, when emotional relevance works, it really works. Consider Saturn's "A different kind of company. A different kind of car." Or think of "Find your own road," Saab's late, lamented voyage straight into the psyches of its iconoclastic target consumers.

Alas, "Living large" ain't no Saturn or Saab. More to the point, it doesn't measure up to any previous iteration of "Drivers wanted."

From the beginning two years ago, Arnold's thoughtful and stylish campaign has homed in on the values, frustrations, desires, attitudes and lifestyles of Generation X. Having first determined that young people were the core market, the agency deftly identified their core concerns and built a strategy around them. Among the results: "Da da da," the study of two post-college underachievers, tooling around in their Golf for the want of anything else to do.

Not only does the spot capture the quintessence of Gen X wheel-spinning, it gives us a Nissan-worthy slice of the automotive experience while also--when the guys pick up an abandoned armchair--showing off the roominess of the Golf.

So now comes the Passat work, which tries nothing more ambitious than doing for the 30-plus crowd what the Golf and Jetta ads did for 16-to-30.

And yet it falls flat--partly because it is flat. These are interesting but uninspiring vignettes that touch on some familiar lifestyle issues but fail to find the quintessence of anything.

And, unlike the previous spots, they communicate none of the car's appeal. The Passat is the best VW ever, a handsome, quiet, roomy, safe, powerful sedan that handles like a sports car--and compares favorably to many imports costing $10,000 more.

The automotive press, even by its own obsequious standards, is unanimous in its adulation. Yet, in these spots, we get no notion of its performance, appointments or very affordable price.

Emotion is all well and good. It's nice to connect with the target audience. But this would have been a great time to just present the goods.

Copyright December 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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