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Speed Racer pitches for Volkswagen and the Winston Cup

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Subject: TV’s fastest-driving pitchman, Speed Racer, and his commercials for Volkswagen’s GTI and ESPN’s Winston Cup racing coverage.

Synopsis: The Volkswagen ad reverentially re-creates the stilted look of the original 1966 Japanese series (”The mouth action was pretty limited. You had a closed mouth, a wide-open mouth, and two medium mouths,” says animator J.J. Sedelmaier. ”We had to unlearn a lot”), while the ESPN spots mix old Speed animation with new footage of Winston Cup drivers, all set to a cover of the Speed theme song by the alternative band Everclear.

Back Story: The feature version of the cartoon, a high-profile Warner Bros. project that was to star Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage, swerved into development hell last year because of script problems. Once the movie ran out of gas, Speed Racer was freed from licensing ties with Warner, paving the way for the current ads.

Cultural Significance: Certainly, Speed revs up the nostalgic kitsch factor, a valuable button to push for advertisers looking for generational cachet. ”A lot of our dealers are older,” says Francis J. Kelly III, chief marketing officer of Volkswagen’s ad agency, Arnold Communications Inc. ”They don’t know Speed Racer personally, but they said, ‘Hey, if you guys believe Speed Racer is that cool, we’ll give it a try.”’ And so might more advertisers. The race-car driver is now negotiating for an as-yet-unnamed fast-food campaign. No word so far on Racer X’s commercial prospects.

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