Ho-Hum Lexus Tech

Slate advertising critic Seth Stevenson reviews the latest Lexus commercial blitz, featuring explorers and daredevils discovering the new Lexus on-off ignition buttons in an ancient ice cave, an underwater lair and a heavily guarded art museum.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And on to our regular look at the business of advertising now. And this week, Slate ad critic Seth Stevenson has a review of some new ads that try somehow to make climbing an ice cave look as easy as pushing a button.

SETH STEVENSON (Slate): Most car ads are awful and--perhaps the greater sin--indistinguishable. `Oh, look, here's an SUV churning up mud in Monument Valley. There's a luxury sedan roaring across a barren salt flat, dissolve to the finance numbers and the fine print, snore.' So at least Lexus is trying in a new series of TV spots for its GS sports car.

(Soundbite of advertisement; music)

STEVENSON: The first shows a lone adventurer scaling the jagged walls of an ice cave. He drills through the ancient frost to reveal a buried metal button marked `Engine start/stop.' He presses the button.

(Soundbite of advertisement; car engine; music)

STEVENSON: Whoosh! Cut to some smoking-hot footage of a Lexus GS sports car.

(Soundbite of advertisement; car engine; music)

Unidentified Announcer: The entirely new all-wheel drive GS, the next phenomenon from Lexus.

STEVENSON: There's a similar spot with a scuba diver and another with a high-tech cat burglar. The opening moments in all three ads make you stop and pay attention. They boast fantastic locations: a genuine 10,000-year-old ice cave in British Columbia, an underwater trench off the coast of Oahu and an atrium inside the Vancouver Art Museum. The cinematography is sharp and striking, and I particularly love the sound effects: crampons crunching into ice pack...

(Soundbite of advertisement; crampon striking ice)

STEVENSON: ...bubbles escaping from dive masks.

(Soundbite of advertisement; underwater bubbling)

STEVENSON: I'm less fond of the closing soundtrack, which is a luxury car cliche, classical music with a drumbeat.

(Soundbite of advertisement; car engine; music)

STEVENSON: The whole campaign feels extremely 007. And so it was no surprise when Lexus' ad agency, Team One, actually used the term `James Bondian' to describe the aesthetic they were aiming for. They wanted the ads to promise excitement and refinement.

Now I'm not the target market for a luxury sports car--I currently drive a '96 Saturn with a last-legs muffler and some brutal fender scrapes--but I still get the general idea. Team One says they're trying to reach `people who want to reward themselves for the success that they've achieved.' Sounds good. And I'm coolio with both their strategy and their execution, right up until that engine start-stop button comes on the scene.

(Soundbite of advertisement; car starting; music)

STEVENSON: Oh, the button. Let me explain why Lexus is crazy to center an entire campaign around it. First of all, this is not an awe-inspiring, super-high-tech feature. I mean, this is a button. What's so great about pressing a button instead of turning a key? The fact that Lexus designed an on-off button does not move me to bow before their engineering prowess. If we were really getting `James Bondian,' the button would fire missiles or release oil slicks or something, but I can't find these in any of the options packages.

A few of my readers feel there's also an embarrassing contradiction at the heart of the ads. The ads are all about triumphing over hyperdifficult challenges--ice caves and sea trenches and whatnot--and then they focus on the luxuriously lazy button. I asked Team One to address this discord, and they got a bit huffy, in my opinion. They said the opening scenarios were about excitement and exhilaration, and that they really didn't see any contradiction here. Whatever. The real subtext of the ads is that after you've conquered the ice cave--that is, after you've worked for three years on Wall Street--you deserve a little push-button, no-hassle ease.

I give the spots a B-. Whatever you think of them, that car does look mighty sleek. I'd really love to gun it across a salt flat, had I a spare 45 grand and a spare salt flat.

(Soundbite of "James Bond Theme")

BRAND: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, who writes the Ad Report Card column for Slate.

(Soundbite of "James Bond Theme")

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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