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January 16th, 2006
Mon, Jan. 16th, 2006 12:00 am

Car commercials. They're worse when they're good, aren't they? Because when they're good, when they touch us on some sensitive point (like our love for nature or children or art) they're not only lying about the essential evilness of cars, but tarnishing the good stuff they're dragging into the frame. And I say this as someone whose music has scored a car advert, and who's profited from the association. Mea maxima culpa (and thanks, Paolo Rumi, for making it happen)!

But apart from being evil and ingenious, car commercials tell us about cultural values. Oh yes! Don't think you were getting away from those so quick, after yesterday's lecture-entry on The difference that makes a difference!

I've been looking at two sets of car commercials, all viewable online. The first set (and thanks to Jean Snow for the link) are British. Yes, they're from the land I loved, then loathed, then left. And they display all the hate and sharkiness I've come to associate with British culture since becoming an exile, a sort of semiotic Lord Haw Haw.

Now, these are good evil commercials. I'm sure there are lots of bad ones that wouldn't even be worth commenting on. These ones (they're all for Honda, and they're all by agency Wieden and Kennedy, which I've also done work for, although it was music for Nike, not for car companies) won prizes. They're linked from this page. The first is for the Honda Civic, and it shows a sort of Fluxus choir in a parking garage. A rather scary bald choirmaster (in an image typical of the Western love of hierarchy and leadership by "experts") conducts a choral group who, instead of singing, emulate all the sounds a Honda Civic makes as it drives through the world.

Now, apart from the fact that the choir-master looks like a bald Tony Blair about to justify yet again the invasion of Iraq with a motivating "Look..." (he gets increasingly manic in his authoritarianism as the ad progresses, jumping up and down by the end while his management team choristers attempt to keep up with his commands), what annoys me here is that the Fluxus choir idea is a really good one. It reminds me of Tomomi Adachi's Royal Chorus, which I suspect the director may have heard, and ripped off. The last shot is the smug grin of one of the choristers, a sort of "Didn't we do well under our team leader?" grin which unites all divisions (instructed choir from instructing master, and musicians from audience), and takes the place of the much-worked-for Last-Night-of-the-Proms applause the group clearly feel they deserve, even in a parking garage.

I'm not quite sure whether that ad really did rip off Tomomi Adachi, but there's no doubt at all that the feted 2004 ad Honda Cog completely rips off Fischli and Weiss's 1987 piece "The Way Things Go", which shows in a single unbroken sequence an amazingly prolonged domino effect, as one object hits another, chemical reactions are triggered, rubber bands fire, and so on. Exactly the same thing happens in the Honda ad, except that they cheat, using CGI at one point (it's when the exhaust pipe rolls over).

The plagiarism is only to be expected; in pretty much the same way, Volkswagen ripped off Gillian Wearing's "Signs that say what you want them to say not signs that say what someone else wants you to say" for an ad. Wearing didn't sue because another artist who'd been the victim of the same thing ended up liable for £200,000 in court expenses. Her series might well now be retitled "Signs that say what you want them to say until they say what some car manufacturer wants them to say".

Finally, here's another prize-winning Honda ad, Grrr. The music is basically "Don't Worry, Be Happy", the voice is someone trying to sound like Garrison Keillor, the imagery is bunnyrabbits and bluebirds sporting, implausibly, around their greatest enemy, a diesel engine, and the message is "Hate something, make something better!"

It's almost impossible to imagine such a slogan in Japan. Japanese car ads (there's a bunch of them here) are short, bizarre, and unfailingly cute. No surprises in that, really. But the lack of sharkiness is refreshing.

So, no authoritarian orchestral conductors or peans to hate here. Instead we get, for the Mazda Demio, a girl who keeps her car in her house. Some might find her quirkiness annoying, but I find it rather sexy. I also like how the music in this commercial follows the speech. I used to have a software program that could turn whatever your voice did into notes: these people seem to be able to turn spoken phrases into chords. Very Cute Formalist!

The Mazda MPV commercial has the first of many children, the Zoom Zoom boy, a kind of Harry Potter of car magic. Cars in Japan are protective not only of natural greenery -- they're all "eco", or claim to be -- they're also friendly protectors of everything small and vulnerable. No road-kill here, just gentle metal wombs occupied by charismatic French people, quirky single 30something women, and parents who want to calm their babies.

The cute-funny-quirky angle reaches Dada dimensions with the Toyota Fun Car Go ads. In the first a shepherd in the Alps falls asleep counting the sheep jumping into the back of his Toyota, which then plows through a field of tulips (as percentage rates flash above), then a Latin lover type with a unibrow makes eyes at the seating plan, before the car claps with its back door.

In the second a little girl plays mouth organ, then a woman bringing shopping home finds Superman changing in the back of her car. I guess its friendly shape and public utilities vibe made him mistake the Toyota for a phone booth. Easy mistake to make.

Although I much prefer the Japanese ads to the British ones (they seem gentler and more humane to me), there's something that disturbs me about both sets of films. It's not just the plagiarism of relatively interesting and fresh creative ideas from other media that bugs me (and again, the Japanese ads, if only by dint of their eccentricity and brevity, seem to do this less, but maybe I'm just not recognising the sources), it's the ransacking and tarnishing of positive images. With their huge budgets, these ads are able to present ideas powerfully. Sometimes they're ideas that artists have already presented, and they're presented uncredited, and without remuneration to the artists concerned. Sometimes they're ideas that artists might want to present in the future.

I've mentioned that I'm working on an album code-named "The Friendly Album". Some of the ideas I had when I planned this album related to Fluxus choirs, to the idea of music that followed speech, to natural and eco-friendly imagery, to childish playfulness, to supportive "feminine" feelings and solidarity. I even had that "Don't Worry, Be Happy" song in mind as a kind of template. And now I see that one of the first things this stuff will remind people of, when it's all put together, will be... a car commercial.

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