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Fast as a Shark: The Problem With Words

Illustration for article titled Fast as a Shark: The Problem With Words

Conversation with three rednecks in beat Silverado in the middle of an intersection:

"Hey! Are you a fag?"
"Uh, no."
"Well if you ain't no faggot, you'd better uncuff them pants. Say something, boy! You walk like you've got a dick in your ass!"


What was I supposed to say? "Do you call that watermelon 'Momma' when you're bent over it, grunting and puffing away?" No, because I was being baited. And I knew I'd get my ass handed to me if I said anything; I'd already said too much. So I walked on, wishing I had a MAC-10, a TEC-9 or even a flintlock pistol. But why was I even contemplating lighting six cigarettes at once and systematically putting them out in the eyes of these idiots? The problem, friends, is with words.

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never harm us; the adage has been beaten into us since childhood. But it's a lie. Words can hurt; words shape perspective: Picture = thousand words. Words + pictures + product = advertising. Automotive advertising is underserving its audience; which means that by definition it's underserving its clients.


Germans as a meme, of course, are an easy mark; one of the last groups around that can easily be made fun of with minimal repercussions. From Colonel Klink to Dieter of Sprockets to Peter Stomare's turn as a nihilist in The Big Lebowski, there's something inherently humorous about Germans, their devotion to precision, and their prediliction for putting two dots over vowels. Of course, I'm guilty of taking the piss out of them as much as anyone. Emil, Spinelli and I speak in Teutonic accents whenever we get together; so much so that we irritate the living bejeezus out of anyone around us who isn't in on the joke — or wisely chooses stay out of it, especially at a Porsche event. During my brief interview with now-Volkswagen honcho Martin Winterkorn last fall, it was nearly impossible to keep from lapsing into a German accent.

So if Germans are naturally hilarious, why did Dieter Zetsche as the New Iacocca flop? Zetsche's more than willing to poke fun at himself during press introductions — a running gag that stands as a shared giggle between the press and the execs. But in the real world, nobody cares how affable Zetsche may be; what translates to a bunch of insiders at Cobo doesn't necessarily play broadly. The Dr. Z character was confusing to Chuck and Diane Populace; he wasn't over-the-top German enough to be truly funny, but wasn't serious enough to be taken seriously. One of the big reasons the spots failed was the with the words put in Zetsche's mouth. Iacocca's legendary, "If you can find a better car, buy it," tag was effective because even if we went and bought better cars, it was a believable line coming from Lido. The Dear Dr. Z... bits simply lacked zazz; when the kicker is the opening line of the ad, you're already in trouble.

The other side of the equation? VW's "Un-Pimp Mein Auto" spots. Swedish actor Stormare is obviously playing off his Uli Kunkel/Karl Hungus character from Lebowski, and while it should be funny to see Stormare goofing on Deutschland, VW poking fun at itself and to watch ludicrous tuner cars get lunched in ridiculous ways, it's too fratty and over-the-top. The wink; the nod; they are too broad. Instead of just being clever, they shout, "Let's show you how clever we really are in a bro-down kind of way. Seth Stevenson has an excellent deconstruction of Crispin Porter + Bogusky's recent ads over at Slate, which is well worth checking out.


That said, I loved the campaign that snared Crispin Porter the VW account in the first place: the Mini launch. The press kits were inventive and the billboards called up cultural signifiers that had yet to be overused; they defined the Mini as a classy, classless vehicle; a workaday car for the dare-to-be-different crowd, from college students to celebrities. They were inviting, rather than a bludgeon to the head like the "Safe Happens" spots or the murky, pseudo-surreallist dreck of the "Make Friends With Your Fast" bits.

It's the difference between having a bear friend compliment you on your beard and having a truckload of inbred meth freaks call you "fag." Both insinuate that there's some measure of queer in how you comport yourself. The difference? One's flattering and one's insulting. It goes back to words and context. The best ads put the right words in the right context. But in the current dismal state of automotive advertising, it's just not happening. Instead, clueless hipsters echo the sounds of salesmen. Of salesmen!


Thanks for listening. We'll see you next Wednesday.

"Fast as a Shark" is a weekly electronic broadside aimed at what has been historically right and terribly wrong with the autmotive industry and culture. And yes, in the last dream we had about Udo Dirkschneider, he was taller than us.


Fast as a Shark: No Sleep 'Til Lynbrook [Internal]

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@RPB: Though I agree about the double entendres, from my own experience, creative departments tend to be made up of bleary-eyed alcoholic copywriters and new wave film-obsessed art directors with green hair. They churn out work that's creative (which may or may not be a good thing) which is then sanitized by the account people for the sake of the client. It's the guy with the good hair and Wert's lady who do that.

Essentially, creatives are zoo animals the client likes to look at from a distance and agencies are entirely complicit in this, hiring only the wackiest looking art directors or the most conceited writers—regardless of talent—so that clients can be paraded by and convince themselves they're getting good work.