Walking The Walk

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How good things sometimes happen: Of the five prospective Saturn relaunch spots the agency showed to the General Motors Corp. client, three went into focus group testing. Of those three, one was clearly the loser. It was about people going about their ordinary automotive business without their actual automobiles-just shuffling along on foot as if they were actually driving-and many of the folks on the chatty side of the two-way mirror were just puzzled.

"Kind of confused about why they were seeing what they were seeing," recalls Creative Director Jamie Barrett of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, and co-author, with art director Mark Wenneker, of "Sheet Metal."

The client went for it anyway, though, because the concept had the aura of a "big idea." In actuality, the commercial didn't flow from a big idea at all, but rather a relatively small idea perfectly realized in production. Nonetheless, "Sheet Metal" is Best of Show in the Advertising Age 2002 Best Awards.

It was also a declaration that the old, clunky, homespun Saturn image was (if the advertising worked) about to change.

"We felt we needed to do something that was a new line in the sand," Mr. Barrett says, and mission accomplished. Viewers noticed what was-incorrectly-called the "carless car commercial" and debated whether Saturn, by finally achieving styling parity with the decidedly unsexy Camry and Accord, was in a position to be calling attention to itself.

Reproduced in body language

Mainly, though, viewers just watched. And watched, because the spot is irresistible. The automotive body language of our car nation-from backing out of the driveway to sitting in traffic, to yielding at intersections, to riding the school bus-was reproduced, dead on, in actual body language. Without uttering a word, "Sheet Metal" was the wittiest spot in every pod in which it appeared.

It was also beautiful. The choreography, cinematography, direction and editing were crafted as if there were no joke afoot, and the accompanying piano etude by the Polish/French musician/composer Gregory Czerkinsky is a gentle and irresistible counterpoint. Some on the client side were still a little put off by the lack of sheet metal, but Mr. Barrett says the spot was well understood where it counted.

"Jill Lajdziak [Saturn's VP-sales, service and marketing] watched it twice without saying a word and said, `I have nothing else to say. I love it.' "

Mr. Barrett credits a lot of the impact to editor Avi Oron, who found the mesmerizing piano piece and came up with a near-final cut on the first pass. But then there was the direction by Noam Murro, who got the city of Los Angeles to block off roads-including the 710 Freeway-to film the human traffic. Imagine 500 extras shuffling along, mimicking cars in stop-and-go conditions, on an interstate.

"We actually choreographed the spot on the fly," Mr. Barrett says. "We tried jogging. We tried hands down at the sides. It took a couple scenes to nail the shuffling motion that you see in the final spot. On the highway day, me, Mark, James Horner [the producer] and Noam got out in front of all 500 extras and demonstrated the shuffling. Noam was a great director but did a crappy shuffle."

Saturn's special connection

As to the veracity of the central claim-that Saturn builds its cars around you-it's the kind of cheerful assertion that any manufacturer can truthfully make, without fear of much infuriating or much impressing the audience. Saturn, however, had a 12-year history of cultivating a unique relationship with its community of customers. That people-first equity gives them special license, and special credibility, in staking "Sheet Metal's" claim.

Still, though, the L-Series sedan didn't materialize till the last 10 seconds, which sent a lot of Detroit tongues wagging. "The traditionalists sort of saw it as sacrilegious," Mr. Barrett says, but he loves the buzz the controversy created. "If you're interested in it and talking about it, that's all good."