It wasn't the dialogue. There is no dialogue.
It wasn't the eye-catching digital graphics; the highest computer technology in this spot resides in the engine of the car being advertised. And it sure wasn't the lyrics of the background music, considering that those lyrics are as follows: 'Da da da.'
What made the 'Sunday After-noon' commercial for the Volkswagen Golf Advertising Age's Best for 1997 was its expressiveness, its pointedness, its relevance, its intrusiveness and, most of all, its understatement. Advertising Age is a sister publication to Automotive News.
'It's better to say less and do less and let people fill in the blanks,' says Alan Pafenbach, creative director at Arnold Communications of Boston. 'It's better to say enough and no more.'
The judges, having viewed many a spot that did a lot of talking but still said nothing, heartily concurred. The picture of two young men on an aimless, taciturn Sunday drive in a new Golf said more about the car - and the
underemployed, underoccupied lifestyles of the Generation X target - than 1,000 words of copy.
'You know,' says Pafenbach's partner, Lance Jensen, 'we just wanted to do a spot showing what people really do in cars, which is a lot of nothing.
'These two guys, they maybe just graduated from college. They've got maybe nothing going on, probably partied pretty heavily the night before, and Sunday they are just enjoying each other's company, you know? It's that age when you have time to do nothing.'
And, because they are both men, say nothing.
'It's kind of like a guy thing,' Pafenbach says. 'Guys can sit for hours and communicate, and not speak, which drives women crazy. Guys don't feel the necessity to fill space with just talk.'
So neither did Jensen and Pafenbach. They let the action tell the story: If you should happen to spy a discarded easy chair and want to claim it as your own, the Golf's roomy hatchback will accommodate you. Thus do the two characters liberate such a chair from a curbside - until the odor of the thing wafts its way to the front of the car, whereupon they instantly ditch their treasure.
'That's the product difference in this product,' Pafenbach says, 'the hatchback. The chair is an object we carefully picked. It's quite large, but it actually does fit in the back of the car.'
Well thought out or not, the client, according to the creatives, was 'hesitant' about producing such a minimalist idea, but acquiesced based on the argument that this was in fact a basic product demo.
'It's just, you know, subtle,' Pafenbach says. 'But it's all there.'
It is, indeed. The subtlety, however, hinged not only on the idea but on the performances. Director Baker Smith of Tate & Partners, Santa Monica, Calif., did a general casting call, found an appropriately odd but genuine couple of 20-somethings and spent a shooting day tooling around and improvising with various props, expressions and bits of business.
Actor Chris Valenti, who plays the driver, had to be a convincing sniffer of musty odors. He was.
His sidekick, actor Antwan Tanner, had to be convincingly occupied with a plunger-activated miniature puppet. He was.
And then there was the music, an obscure cut from a 1980s German pre-alternative band called Trio. They chose the music because its pleasant monotony offered a splendid metaphor for the Sunday excursion and the presumed sameness in the lives of the characters themselves.
As the voiceover says to end the spot: 'The German-engineered Golf. It fits your life. Or your complete lack thereof.'
A CLOSE CALL
In winning the Best TV Spot of 1997, this commercial narrowly edged another magnificent car ad by Lowe & Partners/SMS of New York. Its spot for Mercedes-Benz features fake historical footage of Mercedes owners and Mercedes workers singing along to Marlene Dietrich's 'Falling in Love Again.'
Bob Garfield is an editor at large at Advertising Age.