Why the ad community needs Saturn ad to succeed

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Here's a column about that most unfashionable of topics for a modern advertising magazine: a TV commercial. It's a brilliant one at that: the new spot for General Motors Corp.'s Saturn cars from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.

How do we know it's brilliant? Not having had the benefit of consumer research or focus groups, or having seen the spot in a bar with Joe Sixpack, we are going to rely on another unfashionable attribute in modern-day advertising: instinct.

Apologies if I have told this story before, but 12 years ago, as a cub reporter in recession-hit London, I asked the venerable editor of Campaign magazine (Bernard Barnett, now of Y&R Europe) how one knew when an ad was brilliant. His reply has stayed with me, years later: "Instinct, dear boy. You know it when you see it. We all do. Whatever people say."

Today, in an even more pragmatic era, one might expect the answer to that query to run along the lines of "because it shifts lots of product." I absolutely do not believe that an ad can ultimately be brilliant if it fails to move product. However, there is no fence upon which to sit here. The line "it works, therefore it must be good" is the biggest cop-out in advertising. The only possible answer to that is "but it can work better" with better work. Without being able to argue this sincerely, many of us could simply no longer work in and around this business.

It is the rare gem that breaks through the clutter and the wallpaper to achieve that moment when a genuine idea transcends the medium. Often it's work that makes the rest of us nod with appreciation, or just as frequently complain, "Yeah, I had that idea, but ..." (Pick from one of the following: "The client ran scared"; "the research killed it"; "the account guy couldn't sell it"; "the director mangled it," etc).

After such a big build-up, any description of the Saturn commercial cannot help but be banal, but here it is: The inhabitants of "anytown" impersonate the behavior of cars, both by day and night, moving and parked. This delightfully simple tableau is played out to a stark piano track.

And that's it, as simple as that is. The idea is this: When Saturn designs cars, it sees people, not sheet metal. Check it out for yourself at AdCritic.com.

I benefit from not knowing too much about the Saturn brand. It hasn't traveled overseas. So my opinions of it are heavily influenced by this one commercial. It's been enough to drive me to the Web site to find out as much as I can about the company. I certainly feel more positive about Saturn as a result.

As there genuinely isn't much to say about the execution itself, let's just commend the agency for having had the idea, Noam Murro-America's director-of-the-moment-for handling it so sensitively and, above all, the Saturn client for buying such a daring concept from its new agency. For once you can see why a client moved its account.

I am sure there's some unwritten rule that journalists are supposed to stay more neutral than this. But you know what? I hope the campaign works, and moves lots of Saturns. If it does, we will all benefit in the long run.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Creativity, AdAgeGlobal.com and AdCritic.com.

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