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When Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer pitched the Volvo account three years back, the agency made an astonishing suggestion for communications strategy:

Talk about safety.

The soon-to-be-client was fittingly taken aback. Safety? Volvo should talk about safety? This was on the order of suggesting NASA talk about rockets, that Ivory Snow talk about purity. That is to say, it's a given.

As Bob Austin, the carmaker's director of public communications, puts it: "What we've discovered is, if you say Volvo, you are saying safety."

But Volvo hadn't been talking safety the poignant way this ad agency would. The TV commercial created by partner and Copywriter Ron Berger and Art Director Michael Lee was voted Best of Show by the judges of Advertising Age's annual Best Advertising Awards for 1993.

Messner's achievement was a triumph of rediscovery. A substantial part of the company's marketing problems over the past decade involves consumers' inability to associate Volvo with anything but safety. Performance, for example, is not a word summoned immediately by the mention of Volvo. Nor is styling. Nor value.

To put consumer perception in a nutshell: If you're going to skid into a bridge abutment, you might want to do it in an expensive, boxy, sluggish Volvo.

Volvo retained cachet with consumers who regard safety as the critical purchasing consideration, Mr. Austin says, "But as soon as safety was your number two purchase consideration, there were a lot of other car purchase options."

Thus has a great part of the company's energies been devoted to developing the 900 series of (relatively) sleek and powerful cars-not to diminish the safety image, but to expand beyond it. Yet while Volvo strained to communicate the values of general automotive excellence long espoused by the competition, the competition suddenly discovered Volvo's values.

"Everybody is talking about safety the way Volvo used to talk about safety," says Mr. Berger.

And, of course, he's right. Scan the car ads in any magazine and note the litany of Volvoid features: passenger compartment "cages," front and rear crush zones, airbags, etc. By the early '90s, these had become common currency-which, the agency told Volvo, is precisely why Volvo had to reclaim the issue as its own.

At long last the Volvo image tied into the industry zeitgeist. This was no time to let it be poached by other carmakers.

The prospective client agreed. Largely on the strength of its strategic recommendations, Messner Vetere won the business. Shortly thereafter, a series of emotional, safety-oriented TV spots were on the air. And at least one other was in development.

Its subject: the Volvo Saved My Life Club, an exclusive membership organization, formalized in 1991, of people who credit Volvo features for their surviving horrendous wrecks. The club was once described in a spread magazine ad, but Messner Vetere saw it as a wonderful opportunity for a TV spot.

"They took one look at this and went crazy," Mr. Austin recalls, and no wonder.

What had put the account in play was Scali, McCabe, Sloves' infamous "Bear Foot" spot depicting a monster truck repeatedly failing to crush an incredibly rigid Volvo-which later was found to have been clandestinely crush-proofed with extra, welded-in I-beams. What Messner Vetere went crazy over was the opportunity not only to reclaim its safety heritage but to restore credibility in making the claim.

Who better to do that than Volvo survivors themselves?

Here too, though, there were risks. One was the danger of crassly exploiting the near-tragedies of the "club" members. The other was vulgarly exploiting the emotions of the viewer.

"The commercial," says Mr. Berger. "needed to be a celebration of life." And so it is.

Softly lighted and sepia toned, with the Cambridge Singers' "What Sweeter Music" in the background, the spot shows eight individuals or groups, identified by name and date that hint at something significant but give no clue as to what.

Helen and Ralph Capo (Jan. 3, 1989) aren't doing anything dramatic, just sitting in a kitchen greeting their grandson. Keith Heavenridge (Jan. 3, 1990), simply shoots baskets with his son. Deniece Richards and her sister Darlene Funk (May 4, 1991) simply stroll along the beach. They are living life to its fullest not by parachuting from airplanes or whitewater rafting, but by doing small things well savored-savored, as we are about to learn from voiceover announcer Donald Sutherland, because they were nearly taken away.

"The people you've been looking at," he says, "all share a common belief: that a car saved their lives."

Then the strolling sisters share a slow motion laugh, and a hug, in a gloriously understated tribute to the sublime joy of being alive. It is intimate, poignant and powerful, yet respectful and self-effacing. In a word: magnificent.

Ironically, Volvo's very "Bear Foot" skittishness helped the cause. As Mr. Berger recounts, lawyers balked at the original voiceover copy.

"The original line was `These people all have something in common: a car saved their lives,'*" he says, but the lawyers would have no part of language implying an invulnerability claim that would beg for product-liability litigation in the event someone failed to survive a Volvo crash.

It was a fortunate objection. The reworked language is better. The safe choice, one might observe, was the right choice. And that is nothing more than what Volvo has been saying all along.

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