Sing it like you hate it

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Agency creatives don't usually write and then perform the music used in a spot. However, most car commercials don't feature animated technicolor bunnies with earmuffs, penguins with sledgehammers or fish and rainbows, and most spots don't advocate hate as a positive attribute. As a matter of fact, nothing about Honda's "Grrr" is typical and, perhaps because of that, the spot has gained nearly as much attention and popularity as Wieden + Kennedy/London's last blockbuster for Honda's "Cog."

"Grrr" introduces Honda's new, cleaner diesel engine with an eternally catchy tune sung by author, radio host and official Honda spokesperson Garrison Keillor. The spot evolved organically from the song, which advises us to "hate something, change something, make something better." As Keillor's warm baritone sings of the upside of hate, we see animals hating on several old, smelly, loud engines, picking them off with eggs, arrows and their own mouths (poor fish) until the new, cleaner engine appears and gives a solo whistle before joining in with the chorus. Cheery and traditionally melodic, the song has the feel of an old radio jingle, and its repetitive, jumpy cadence is supported by acoustic guitar and knocking provided by copywriter Michael Russoff, who wrote the tune. The song also features Russoff's backing vocals and whistles along with those of fellow W+K copywriters Sean Thompson and Richard Russell (now a creative director at W+K/Amsterdam). The team's desire to set the spot's story to music was justified when they confirmed that Keillor could sing. "We didn't want it to be too glossy," says Russell. "We wanted it to be like you were at a bar, and there was just some band playing in the corner, and it wasn't bothering you too much."

The inspiration for the lyrics came from a Honda engineer who hated inherently-flawed diesel engines so much that he refused the company's request to design a new one until they let him build it from scratch. "We got to thinking about the most positive way of showing hate," says Thompson. "And we came up with this Hate World, which is a beautiful place with hate on the horizon, and it started to become interesting."

Recording the song with Amber Music producers John Waddell and Will Parnell in London in just a few takes, the group at one point tried to make a production number with clarinets, horns and kazoos, but according to Waddell, the song was most emotive at its simplest and with all of its flaws. "Funnily enough, that can be the hardest thing to do," he says, adding that he and Parnell searched for bits of silence ("because nothing is ever truly silent") and considered every tiny detail over the course of several weeks. "It's very much an anti-production, and it's charmed."

With hate as the message, and the sincerely optimistic tune, the song transcends the cool of irony to become purely enjoyable. "We think that maybe part of its appeal is that its optimistic, joyous tone strikes a chord in these rather dismal times," Russell says. "That's an awful pretentious thing to say about a TV commercial, but there is something rather nice about people who are remorselessly positive about things. We wanted to create the impression that when you see a Honda ad, you don't know what you're going to get."

What we just might get is a full-length single recorded for England's "Hit Parade" record chart. "Essentially it's a jingle, and jingles have a bad name, don't they?" says Russell. "So it was nice that the music was this mad cousin that had been locked in an attic and everyone had forgotten it was there. We were able to let him out again."

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