Slate's Ad Report Card: VW's Jetta Surprise

Slate contributor Seth Stevenson reviews a new series of television ads for the Volkswagen Jetta. The spots feature drivers and passengers having everyday conversations when they suddenly are involved in a front-end collision.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Advertisers often try to play on our emotions: happiness, anger, self-doubt. Seth Stevenson is the ad critic for the online magazine Slate. He reviews now a new television campaign that relies on fear and uses it, Seth says, very well. And as we listen, just in case you're driving, this review contains several recordings of cars crashing.

SETH STEVENSON reporting:

A new series of Volkswagen spots has prompted massive amounts of reader mail. Some of you are terrified, some of you are appalled, and some of you think the ads are absolutely brilliant. Personally, I don't find these to be works of surpassing genius, but I do think they're pretty sharp. One starts with four young people riding in a Volkswagen Jetta. They're driving home from the movies.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Male #1: It was a sad ending and everything, I just didn't cry.

Unidentified Female #1: I saw you with your hand in your chin.

Unidentified Male #2: That's called concentrating on the moment.

STEVENSON: They, and we, don't really notice that an SUV has run a red light until we see it smashing into the Jetta's driver side door.

(Soundbite of crash)

STEVENSON: Airbags deploy, glass shatters. We fade out and then fade back in on the Jetta's passengers, unharmed, standing next to the badly damaged cars. Police sirens wail. One of the passengers begins to voice her natural reaction to seeing the mangled car.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Female #1: Holy...

STEVENSON: The profanity is cut off before she can finish uttering it and an on-screen slogan appears. It says, Safe Happens. We're then told that the Jetta has received the highest government side-impact rating. The execution of this crash scene is remarkable. The spot captures that out-of-nowhere moment at the heart of all accidents, when everyday mundanity flashes into a hyper-intense freak-out explosion.

(Soundbite of crash)

STEVENSON: Visually, I love that they've avoided any clich├ęd slow-mo crash footage. This choice reminds me of my other favorite car crash scene from Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. In a single unadorned middle-distance shot with no foreshadowing whatsoever, we see Julia Robert's car get violently crunched as it rolls through an intersection.

(Soundbite of crash from Erin Brockovich)

STEVENSON: This Volkswagen spot is similarly stripped down. It's a brutally frank look at the physical chaos that results when an SUV enters your Sedan without an invitation. But is this a good advertising concept?

Why a campaign that centers on safety? VW's last TV spots were all about aggressive, high-speed driving and finding your inner fast. Now they're pitching airbags? I'm feeling some whiplash. VW told me that this is an attempt to reach 18 to 34 year olds by presenting safety in a more emotional and dramatic light. The plan obviously is to get even young, childless car buyers totally freaked out about car crashes. And judging by the post-traumatic emails I'm getting from readers, that plan appears to be working.

Since these spots are filmed mostly from inside the cars and feature likeable, attractive, but not too attractive characters, the viewer's lead to feel like part of the gang. There's a second ad that follows the same pattern, except with different pre-crash banter.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Male #3: Look, stuff either happens or it doesn't happen. Stuff doesn't sort of like happen.

(Soundbite of crash)

STEVENSON: When the accidents hit, we feel like victims too. If being drawn into these violent clips doesn't get the target young demographic thinking about auto fatalities, nothing will. And since it's quite possible that nothing will, I give these ads a B. As for the appropriateness of the ads, and all the outraged reaction, they don't really bother me much. Volkswagen says it's trying to keep the spots airing after 9:00 p.m. so little kids are less likely to see them. And part of me thinks it's healthy for us to contemplate our mortality during the breaks in our sit-coms.

ADAMS: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, who writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine Slate. You will find video of the Volkswagen spots at slate.com.

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