The high degree of craft demonstrated by the Coen Brothers is obvious in this new “film” for Mercedes AMG. The casting, wardrobe, acting, editing: it’s all first rate. Seeing Fonda at the end is wonderful – the cocky peace sign he flashes. Yet, everyone in the commercial shines, transcending the biker stereotype. You’ve got to love the two brutes getting stuck in the silver chains adorning their leathers. Or the grizzled biker chick wearing her lines like so many badges. Good stuff, which is what we’d expect from a Super Bowl commercial directed by the Coen Brothers.

Beyond the obvious, however, a thing I really dig (60’s verb intentional) about this film is how damn analog it is, on both sides of the camera. No smartphones. No CGI. Nobody’s tweeting. Instead we see a jukebox. Playing Steppenwolf. Dude holds up a cigarette lighter not an iPhone. Gloriously absent is all evidence of the modern world.

That is until we see the sleek new AMG roadster at the end.

Lots of commercials riff on previous decades but we can often sense the phoniness, kind of like viewing an off-Broadway production of Hair. Something about the cast or wardrobe gives it away. And we’re like: Oh, here’s a commercial making fun of the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s.

But not here. The righteousness of this commercial lifts it above mere advertising content. Rich in detail, fun to watch and just plain good the Coen Brothers remind us of why quality filmmaking still matters. Even in advertising. Especially in advertising.

Agency credit (and kudos) to Antoni, Germany and Merkley + Partners, USA

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Police and fire engine sirens cut through the howling wind. Rain lashes onto the windows of my house, torrents of water falling from the sky. A blessing for drought stricken California but eerie in the moment. Especially when the moment lasts for two days and counting. This afternoon we lost power. Most everyone around here did. A tree fell taking power lines with it. Then another. And another.

And then mine. It toppled over at the root line. The saturated earth could no longer bear the weight. Horizontal became vertical.

My daughter saw it first. Or rather the absence of it. My wife asked me to stake the tree back up. Like I said shorn from the roots. Staking it would be like trying to plant a telephone pole. And so I dragged it off to the gravel pit beside the trampoline. What else could I do? It left a wake of pink and purple petals in the grass.

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As the rain poured down upon me I gazed at the fallen tree. It had been here almost as long as I had, first barely flirting with the lone window of my office, then towering above it. I can recall looking up from my desk on sunny days and seeing hummingbirds zipping among its colorful blooms. At night hawk moths, their curly tongues (proboscis) drawing nectar from the flowers in moon glow. I’m not going to say it was my muse. Writing advertising copy doesn’t require such things. But it was beside me when I wrote everything I wrote.

Bigger trees fell during this storm, causing much chaos. Crew filled yellow trucks. Soggy, irritable claims adjusters taking notes in the rain. Blaring car alarms. This tree did none of that. It just fell. When nobody was looking. But make no mistake: it was there.

On Tuesday the same gardeners who planted it will saw it up and take it away. Come spring, we will likely put in another. But for now this one is lying on the gravel, probably not even fully aware it’s dead. Or that it will be missed.

First things first. I love the song. Though recorded before I was born, Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” is one of those rare tunes that transcends time. If the song came out tomorrow, sung by Adelle, it would be a smash hit. It’s that good. And it’s certainly the best thing about Toyota’s big budget, 60-second anthem for Corolla, which debuted recently. Because of this commercial, I’ve been singing the hero lyric, off and on now for several weeks. In that regard it’s indisputably memorable.

And yet something is the matter. The “creative algebra” doesn’t add up. Using a classic ballad of female empowerment for selling mainstream automobiles to Millennials is not enough to turn the trick. Showing assorted attractive young people engaging in mildly rebellious behavior isn’t enough either. Try as they do to appear otherwise, the cars seem incongruous to the lovely pictures and strong music. By definition most every commercial is fabricated reality but if it’s pushed too far the stink of bullshit corrupts the narrative. In my view that’s what’s happening here. The ad’s slip is showing.

Said another way, there’s nothing particularly interesting or provocative about these cars except for the fact that they’re in this commercial.

The ad is clearly targeting twenty-somethings and according to this article might actually be working. I’m suspicious about this data so soon after the commercial’s premier. Especially given my intuition points in another direction.

And then, just before posting, I saw another execution in the “You Don’t Own Me” campaign, a 30-second spot.

30 second version, with story…

The same great tune. Slick production values. But this time there’s a story. A young woman quits her job from an ornery chef (he can’t own her) and starts a food truck business. The Toyota Corolla gets her from point A to Point B. It’s a simple story but it is a story. And it made me like –maybe the better word is appreciate- the campaign. Stories will do that.

I haven’t enjoyed a Toyota commercial in ages. Compared to the white bread suburban approach the brand has maintained for eons, at least this musically powered approach –helped now I see by stories- has ambition. What do you think? Have I gone soft or was my original assessment accurate?

(Author’s note: I’m avail for copy, content creation & creative leadership: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com)

If you can make it here yada, yada, yada…

Has it really been over a decade since Cadillac reintroduced their brand via the Modernista agency and a Super Bowl commercial featuring Led Zeppelin? It’s actually been longer. What’s weird is that Cadillac always seems to be reintroducing itself to the world. And so yet another new brand launch campaign, this time from Publicis, comes as no surprise. Now the creed is a phrase: “Dare Greatly.” Derived from a famous speech by President Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena.” Great when he delivered it, I’m sure. In the commercial it sounds exactly like the overblown pontifications of a preening copywriter: a purple brand manifesto if ever I heard one. Written my share of them as well. You know what I’m talking about. Such mantras usually include a plethora of big seldom-used words like plethora. Adjectives are used as nouns and vice-versa. Old-time-y phrases. It’s all here in this Ode to trying and failing and trying some more, aka “daring greatly.”

I guess Cadillac has a new CMO, a German named Uwe Ellinghaus. (Say that three times fast.) “The new point of view for Cadillac is one that embodies the American spirit in a contemporary manner without using American cliches,” Mr. Ellinghaus said.

Whatever you say, Uwe.

An uber-German selling the quintessential American car is both discomforting and ironic. But ours is a free country. If Cadillac wants to throw money at a Bavarian in order to reinvent Cadillac for the 100th time that’s their prerogative.

Wozniak dared greatly to think different!

In fairness, the consumer only sees the work. So what of it? The campaign premiered on the Academy Awards, a total of four commercials including the above-mentioned anthem. The other spots depict specific people who dared to do something great and (of course) became famous for it. Cadillac’s step-up line at the end: How dare a 112 year-old carmaker reinvent itself?

Thin argument but at least I get it. More so than the better-to-have-failed opus we get in the anthem. Still, the question comes off a tad disingenuous because, as was stated, the brand has been perpetually trying to re-start for over a decade. Like a car trying to turn over on a winter’s morning: It’s…It’s…It’s…Damn! But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

However, I am weary of American history co-opted to sell products. It feels tired and cynical when it should be bold and fresh. W&K’s image campaign for Levis did all of this…and so much better.


Now that’s Americana made fresh…

Expectedly, the film is pretty but the subject matter is mundane: New York City streets, iconic high rises, carefully chosen “real” people. Honestly, it’s no more than a serioused-up version of SNL’s iconic opening signature film. And they were there first. Outside of a couple shots I’m not inspired by any of it. In the end I can literally feel the advertising agency behind these commercials.

I miss Led Zeppelin.

Author’s Note: As I was writing this I got pinged from my old creative partner, Mike Coffin regarding a blog post he’d just written on the same topic! it is here:

https://medium.com/@mikecoffin_30299/howdarethey-db279342e148

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“The operation can wait. I want the E class!”

What did I do on President’s Day weekend? Why the most patriotic thing an American can do: I went car shopping!

Yes, my beloved 2008 Saab Aero is at that point in its lifespan where the updates and repairs are no longer worth it, especially considering the Saab Motor Company is defunct. Without a knowledgeable dealership, flushing the transmission (a surprisingly costly process on any car) would be even more maddening. Midas and Jiffy Lube told me they didn’t know how to do it. In addition, the new muffler I require would have to be special-ordered, parts and labor exceeding $800 dollars. And then there’s my Check Ignition light that has been haunting me for weeks. The diagnostic check at Jiffy Lube was a Saab code cryptically stating “cylinder #1.”

And so my love affair with Saab must come to an end. I spent the weekend “dating” other sports sedans, test driving 5 different vehicles and sitting in more. At night I dived onto Edmunds and Consumer Reports and various other sites to compare and contrast. At first it’s fun. And then it isn’t. Oh, to be a rich idiot and just pick the car of one’s dreams; say, for example the Porsche Panamera. Needless to say, that cannot happen if I want my children to go to college.

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The Panamera. A figment of my imagination.

I did find some cars I like but rather than get into them here (plenty of websites for that), I want to write about my experience in general, because car buying is one of those endeavors that, for most of us, evoke huge emotional turmoil: excitement, passion, desire –yes! But tempered by disdain, mistrust and frustration- ugh! If you’re starting from scratch (no relationship with a dealer) and you want to do the job right, you must be prepared for all of it.

Since the beginning, competing car dealerships have always been strung together, usually on a frontage road beside the highway. This way you can go from one to the other, absolutely murdering your Saturday. The dealerships in lovely and expensive Marin County are no different. I’d made various appointments online, staggering each 90 minutes. Because I’m not shopping the low end the dealerships I visited were clean, open and modern, free from giant signs and balloons. That’s a good thing.

But you cannot avoid the salesmen; these guys all have one thing in common. They don’t want you to leave empty handed. Good or bad, they are basically copywriters who talk to you. Every aspect of your conversation is a pitch. Sometimes subtle, most times not, these men are trained to get you to drive home in one of their vehicles.

Cynically, I waited for the cliché’s to occur. The first dealership I went to pitted me with a pair of Indian men, donning cheap suits and shiny shoes. One focused on the vehicle while the other ran numbers. It was not long before I heard the obligatory “We want you to be happy, Steffan.” And “What will it take to get you in the car of your dreams?”

Well, how about removing 10 grand off the sticker? That would be awesome! That would make me happy. They were thinking more in the line of free car washes and maybe $500 dollars more on my Saab. For some reason both these dudes were perspiring. I flashed on Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross. When they brought me the wrong car to test drive I knew this wasn’t the place.

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The next dealership I dealt with only one man, also from another country. (Why are they all from other countries?) His delightful English accent was mitigated by tenacity. He came off like an English bulldog. I began to get the willies when he coyly disrespected the competition. “Those are perfectly good cars, Steffan… If one is old.

“I am kind of old,” I wanted to say. But instead I just smiled, wondering what handbook instructed him (and all the others) to keep dropping my name. Still, I liked him better than the Indian tag team. And the vehicles, according to Consumer Reports, were some of the best in their class. Hence, I put the car on my maybe list. How I got out of there without it I’ll never know. The dude gave me his card and texted me 20 minutes later. “I see you in this car, Steffan. Let’s make it happen!”

The last dealership I visited impromptu. Without preparation for me, the salesman was caught off guard. He pointed me to the car I liked and stood back. I ended up test-driving two vehicles, which I adored, and it wasn’t because of his voiceover. I just liked the cars. And I didn’t hate him. That, for me, is the magic combination.

Alas, one still has to run the numbers –a sobering event if ever there was one. But this blog has already gone too long. Besides, who in the hell wants to read about leasing options? You’ll likely walk that bed of coals soon enough.