Traktor is Swedish for tractor, and the Traktors claim they call themselves that because they work "very slowly but very hard," but let's backtrak for a minute. Traktor is a Stockholm-based commercials production collective, repped here by the New York office of Partizan, a Paris-based production company-five directors and a producer, all around 30, who met at Stockholm's version of Art Center in 1990 and decided to go into business together, initially working with a lone fax machine out of one guy's kitchen. They were fortunate enough to hook up early on with a young local agency, Paradiset DDB Needham, which had the Swedish Diesel jeans account, soon to go pan-Europe, and the rest is fringe ad history, led by the Traktor-directed Diesel "Family Fun" spot of some years back, where everyone dumps bags of dirt on the carpet and vacuums them up for some good clean togetherness.
The collective-directors Patrik von Krusentsjerna, Pontus Lowenhielm,
Mats Lindberg, Ulf Johansson and Sam Larsson and producer Richard
Ulfvengren-is indeed a collective, according to Ulfvengren, just one big many-limbed ego that thrives on gin and tonics, "a traditional Traktor drink," he says. "We started with five directors and we'll die with five," he declares, only half-kidding. Traktor directors always work in pairs, with one having "overall responsibility while the other pays attention to fine details and insures that no compromises are made," he explains. "They all shuffle around; anyone can be the lead director on a project, and they work in all different combinations. We try to sell Traktor as a creative group, and we try to convince creative directors to go with the director we think has the best solution for the job. When CDs want to use someone based on a previous job, we say, 'If you like that film, that's not the film so-and-so wants to do again. He wants to do something new.' That's our strategy, but of course it's not always accepted. We can't hide the fact of who shot what, but we try to sell Traktor as a brand."
Speaking of who shot what, the Lite campaign-Traktor directed the first round of spots but not the second-was shot by Ulf and Sam. "We all have very complicated Swedish names, so that helps keep us confused in the minds of American creatives," chuckles Ulfvengren. (Pssst: that's Ulf and Sam.) As for the wave of sheer revulsion that the Lite work has met in some quarters, Mr. Producer is not particularly surprised or perturbed. "Hey, people have different opinions. I think the important thing is they have an opinion, which means you've done a good campaign."
Well, all right. Sales are up, so no one's complaining now. But just what is the deal with this style? Does the oddly twisted Lite work reflect a Swedish sensibility? Is this Swedish humor? We never thought anyone even tittered in Ingmar Bergman country, unless they were having a nervous breakdown. Well, Ulfvengren doesn't know from Swedish humor refracted through the gaudy prism of the American pop virus, at least not on a conscious level. "We work with a lot of soul in our films," he says, rifling his store of English for something resembling a bon mot. "Not all may create outright laughter, but they will create a small smile. We believe in storytelling, we don't just do comedy, but all the films have a little twist. Maybe you'd call them smart? They have a lot of heart."
Some of them go well beyond heart to the sparkling realm of the downright inspirationally insane, like a Norwegian spot for Peppe's pizza, from FCB Publicis/Oslo, in which a tankful of tiny, goggle-eyed, ravenously hungry amphibious humanoids are fed bits of the product by their owner, an icy-cool Euro-beaut, a standard bit of sexy Traktor iconography. Other strangely memorable moments on the Traktor reel include a spot for a mint called Toy that's compared to its competition by standing a giant guy in a pink suit next to four little guys in blue suits. Then there's the spot for an analgesic called Treo, in which a groom is spinning his bride in his arms as they're about to cross the threshold, and he accidentally slams her head into the wall so hard she's probably got a skull fracture. When someone rushes in with the aspirin, he takes it himself. And who can forget the people dressed as caped superhero-mice exploring a planet made of cheese on behalf of OLW Cheez Doodles? It doesn't come off like, say, the Fruit of the Loom fruits, there's something erotic about it. "We can get away with a lot of stuff in Sweden, Norway and Denmark; stuff you would never imagine in the States," says Ulfvengren. Yeah, no kidding. Consider a spot for SAS in which a young guy hitches a ride with two muscular, truck drivin' leather boys who actually handle his ass onscreen like they were buying melons. "Sweden is a very regulated country, but commercials are not regulated yet, they're too new. The first commercial channel was started about the time we opened. There's a debate here now about advertising to children, and there's some trouble with beer; eventually people will decide we have to put up barriers."
Over here, barriers may be coming down, now that they've had a beer blast. Traktor's only prior U.S. job was a Wieden & Kennedy gig for ESPN that they landed through a W&K/Amsterdam connection from a Nike Europe spot: sports nuts may recall the voluminous series of ESPN promos that starred Harry Dean Stanton as the father of a bunch of football-announcer lunatics who recount their bizarre childhoods, played so deadpan it borders on rigor mortis (see Creativity's Upfront section, October '96). This, too, has the faint aroma of a peculiarly Nordic nuttiness, like Liv Ullmann guesting on Laugh-In, so maybe directors Ulf and Patrik can fill us in where Richard stumbled.
"We have a definite connection to American TV, we kind of grew up with it," they explain. "We don't know it all, but we know a lot of it. M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Kojak, MacGyver, Hart to Hart, The Love Boat . . ." It seems all the American shows are subtitled in Sweden, so the guys got a valuable education from Aaron Spelling and the Steves Bochco and Cannell and their intellectual ilk, in the original language! And Sweden's not all grim and bare it; there's a lot of comedy in Swedish commercials, they say, and "it's not heavily stylized, it's a more down to earth sort of humor. It may be more British than American."
Speaking of Brits, they've worked for U.K. agencies too, led by a recent spot for the Vauxhall Vectra and Lowe-Howard Spink, an elaborate and very silly parody of American '40s noir, DP'd by Alex Thomson of Alien 3 and Branagh's Hamlet fame, a point that has the Traktors beaming. The soulful Swedes also grew up with British TV shows and commercials, as might be expected, so they're hip to the grids of English-language sophistication. "From Britain, we see things like Jane Austen on Masterpiece Theater, and a police series that will star Helen Mirren, not Telly Savalas," says Ulf. As far as American commercials go, "over here we see all the best stuff on awards reels, but when we're on a shoot in the States we get to see all the bad stuff. It seems there's nothing in between; there are some very good commercials, and the rest are . . . not that good."
Well, maybe the Traktors, who are gunning for U.S. Coke and Nike work now that they have beer under their belts, are inventing a new category here: really bad