'Billions' actor Paul Giamatti and 'Succession' star Kieran Culkin front VW's new campaign

The three-part series of ads plugs the new Atlas Cross Sport crossover by making a statement against celebrity ‘excess’

Published On
Mar 09, 2020

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Volkswagen has snared stars from two of cable TV’s hottest dramas to star in a three-part ad series for its new Atlas Cross Sport crossover.

Paul Giamatti, who plays New York attorney general Chuck Rhoades in Showtime’s “Billions,” appears as a penny-pinching accountant in the campaign, which comes from Johannes Leonardo. His client is played by Kieran Culkin, known for his portrayal of Roman Roy, the spoiled, immature youngest son of media mogul Logan Roy in HBO’s “Succession.” 

Shades of the cable TV characters are present in the ads, which portray Giamatti as a “celebrity accountant” counseling clients against outlandish purchases like  “solid-gold jet ski." He looms over Culkin’s every move,  trying to reign in his spending, but is relieved to find out that his client bought a VW, which is positioned as a sensible move.

The campaign’s tagline, “Excessive Where it Matters,” is meant to portray the notion that the new Atlas Cross Sport has features that shine in their practicality, such as plenty of legroom. The campaign will debut on TV tonight during the season-finale “The Bachelor” on ABC. Two follow-up ads will begin airing later this month and get airplay during March Madness. The story centers on a road trip the client and celebrity take from Las Vegas through the Nevada desert. The ads were shot on location in New York and Las Vegas, including Caesar’s Palace. The director is Steve Rogers of Biscuit Filmworks.

Johannes Leonardo did not intentionally set out to make any references to the two hit dramas, says Jan Jacobs, co-founder and co-chief creative officer at Johannes Leonardo, noting that the agency considered a handful of actors for each role. 

“We debated this point in the agency for awhile—are people just going to think we are pitting ‘Succession’ and ‘Billions’ against each other?” he adds. But the shop decided that because “these shows are so hot right now” any inference the viewer makes “couldn't really hurt,” he says. “But it wasn’t the pure intention, to be honest.”

The two-row, five-seat Cross Sport, whose pricing starts at $31,565 for a base model, is a smaller version than the regular Atlas, which has three rows and seven seats. VW is taking on Ford’s Edge and Jeep’s Grand Cherokee with the new model, Automotive News recently reported. VW sold 81,508 three-row Atlas crossovers last year, up 37 percent over the previous year, according to Automotive News. 

The Cross Sport “is probably the biggest launch for VW this year,” Jacobs says. “This five-seater  SUV is pretty much the hottest segment in the market right now. They haven't had a vehicle to fit that segment until now.”

“Excessive Where it Matters” is an offshoot of the larger “Drive Bigger” creative platform that VW and Johannes Leonardo launched in mid-2019 shortly after the shop was named the brand’s U.S. lead creative agency. The campaign, which launched four years after VW’s diesel emissions scandal, has attempted to revive the idealistic spirit once associated with the brand, whether it be environmentalism or simple acts of kindness. “Drive Bigger is all about pushing up against self interest,” Jacobs says. “In this instance, self interest in the sense of this obsession of excess—we live in a society where there is never enough.” 

The ads use celebrity as “the foil,” he adds. “Because they tend to be the people who are the most visible buying gold cars and tigers and stuff like that.”

Saad Chehab, senior VP for Volkswagen brand marketing, in a statement said: “Excess in itself isn’t wrong, but excess for the sake of showing off is. Americans shouldn’t have to overextend themselves to drive a quality vehicle that garners celebrity style attention and respect.”