Lincoln is bringing back the Continental, and that’s a big deal. A bold, expensive ad campaign dedicated to the car is absolutely in order. So is spending the big money to get a famous name attached to the project. Lincoln’s doing all these things. So why is the end result so wrong?
Lincoln made news when they announced that they were hiring legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz to shoot a photo series called “That’s Continental” that will be used for their new flagship’s advertising.
Leibovitz, while an incredibly gifted portrait photographer, has never done automotive photography before, but that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The bad thing here has more to do with the painfully misguided and overworked way Lincoln is trying to force a particular idea of image and relevance onto their new car.
Lincoln decided they wanted some sort of narrative to drive the photoshoots; they settled on the idea of a road trip, which, again, isn’t a terrible idea unto itself. Here’s how Lincoln describes the idea and process:
... Annie saw a natural storyline in the road trip as an interpretation of the continental approach to life.
From her perspective, the story of a car famously built to expand viewpoints and turn the gaze of its driver toward new possibilities had to be told through a group of “friends” representative of the new generation of creative talent: artists with bold ideas and a calm, unshakable confidence in the ways they would execute those ideas.
The use of “friends” in quotes like that is the first warning.
To that end, she cast painter Tali Lennox, musician Jon Batiste, actor Giles Matthey, and director Ben Younger to bring this sense of possibility to life. Each artist portrayed a character enlisted to tell the story of a director who embarks on a road trip in search of inspiration with his creative friends — people who absorb the realities of the individuals and places they encounter to further their own creative work.
Here’s a little video of some behind-the-scenes of the whole project:
Okay, so, I get that each of these people are incredibly impressive in what they do. The artist is also a model and the daughter of Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, the musician is the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the director’s had some pretty big movies made, and the actor is some guy that IMDB says was in True Blood.
Okay, fine. These aren’t exactly everyday dipshits, but I get it, they’re the kind of people Lincoln PR types think about buying Lincolns when they masturbate themselves to sleep.
The problem is that the resulting photos, while in many cases quite striking and coldly beautiful, are about as inviting as a night of competitive flossing. This road trip looks like it would be fucking unbearable; everyone seems self-absorbed and brooding, and evokes hours of driving in leaden silences, punctuated only by the tinkle of noodling jazz from the stereo or the scribblings of deep insights into notebooks, and possibly the mournful pleading of that dog, the real victim here, to be let out of this hell slathered in creamy fawn leather.
And, worst of all for Lincoln, the car is pretty anonymous in almost all these images.
That’s a shame, because the new Lincoln is quite a handsome and interesting car. It’s not obviously novel, though, from a distance; it’s a car that hearkens back to the best era of Lincoln design, which was understated and reserved, but spoke volumes through its details. The new Continental has some of the most interesting door handles around, for example, but you’d easily miss that from these images.
These sorts of details are important to a car. Collectively, the interesting details of a car do a lot to define its fundamental character, but in this photo series, the car is, at best, handsome in a pretty forgettable way. You could swap it out with a black Mercedes or even a Kia and most people wouldn’t know the difference.
In a photoshoot about a road trip with a car, the car has to feel like part of the team, not just whatever the rental company gave you. It could be a little dirty, bear some evidence of the trip it’s been on. It should feel like a welcoming mobile refuge from the unknown world around it, and a confident way to explore more.
An old ‘70s Lincoln Continental would have stood out, though, because it’s so obviously different looking than a modern car. But, as far as I understand it, Lincoln no longer sells those.
It’s easy to see what Lincoln is trying to do here: they want to be associated with creative, successful, smart people. Specifically, ones with money to buy some Lincolns instead of defaulting to a Mercedes or BMW or whatever. The problem here is that they’re just trying way, way too hard to force this identity on their car.
These photos have that same weird, detached melancholy of so many fashion shoots. Nobody’s really looking at the car here. The focus is on the people, but when we see them they’re lost in their own forced thoughts, and they look aloof and beautiful and unapproachable and in no fucking way do I want to be stuck in that car with them.
Lincoln needs to make these cars desirable. They need to make people want to be in them, to be seen in them. Nobody gives a shit about these four successful, fortunate assholes and their pretend little road trip to the center of their own egos.
There’s so many ways via advertising that they can convey a tone, a feeling, and associate that feeling with their car. It was for a very different car, but remember that 1999 Volkswagen Cabrio ad with the Nick Drake song? This one:
It’s simple, wordless, with a cast of no one you’ve ever heard of. The music is a huge factor here, but so is the direct, uncluttered way the tiny story was told. Driving at night, with the top down, get to a party, leave, because it felt so good to be driving, with the top down. If Volkswagen didn’t sell you a Cabrio with this, I bet they at least sold you on the appeal of the idea of a convertible on a quiet summer night, in case you forgot.
Lincoln needs to simplify its message. It doesn’t need Annie Lennox’s kid or Annie Leibovitz’ skillful eye. It needs to look to the fundamental inspiration of the Continental – the crisp, handsome Lincolns of the 1960s – and pick the key emotional fruits from that subtly chrome-trimmed tree.
The Continental can be a car that stands out from European luxury cars if it embraces its uniquely American charm. Having Annie Leibovitz make up a road trip for four people (and a dog) that looks like it might end with talking someone out of a suicide is not the way to go about this.
Come on, Lincoln. Don’t fuck this one up. We’re all pulling for you.