The Gap;The Volkswagen Beetle
Madison Avenue — not generally known for its restraint — seems to have rediscovered the old maxim ”Less is more.” Popping up on the tube these days are a batch of surprisingly minimalist ads: spare words, nary a celeb, stark white backgrounds. Oh, how they love those white backgrounds. With companies including Volkswagen, Gap, Apple, and NBC hitting the bleach, there hasn’t been this much white on TV since The Waltons. Okay, maybe on C-SPAN.
Who knows what’s behind the whiteout? Maybe it’s a longing for premillennial simplicity, a backlash against the info glut. Or maybe they’re too cheap to buy sets. Whatever the reason, I’m not complaining. It sure beats other recent commercial trends — those painfully self-conscious meta-ads such as Miller Lite’s ”Dick” campaign, or the faux music videos featuring snowboarders and enough jump cuts to make you reach for the Ritalin.
The white ads — especially the campaign for VW’s New Beetle, the cream of the cream-colored crop — recall an earlier age when ideas rather than images drove ads. So what if New Beetles are being recalled for faulty wiring? The five spots are flawless: The German mini-mobiles zip, float, spin, and swerve around a blank canvas, with a wry tag line capping off each edition. ”If you sold your soul in the ’80s, here’s your chance to buy it back.” Or, ”What color do you dream in?” Or, as seven yellow cars form the shape of a daisy: ”Less flower. More power.”
The minimalist approach suits the little, economical New Beetle. The car is so darn appealing — cute as a bug, you might say — it’s a savvy move to make it the star. The ads have no distractions, no pesky people, roads, or reality intrusions like gridlock. (A paradox of these white backgrounds is that they are at once honest and direct but also place the product totally out of context.)
The campaign is particularly impressive when you think of what it had to live up to. Industry types speak in hushed tones about the original ’60s Beetle campaign, and how it kicked off Madison Avenue’s creative revolution. Remember the spot that showed a black Beetle trailing a funeral procession? Or the spare, provocative print ad featuring the ironic headline ”Lemon”? Trying to follow those must have felt like shooting Citizen Kane, Part Deux. The New Beetle ads aren’t as groundbreaking — they borrowed their lean vibe from the ’60s print ads — but they sure make you smile.
Aside from the VW ads, the other standout of the color-free club — which also includes a PowerBook ad showing a steamroller crushing the competition; antidrug public service announcements with David Spade sarcastically intoning ”Heroin. Dying’s the easy part”; and those NBC promos with TV stars monkeying around — is the Gap khaki campaign. Perhaps realizing that beige pants have a bit of a nerdy, middle-aged-dad rep, Gap set out to show that, as a spokeswoman put it, ”khakis can be as cool as jeans.” Hence these dialogue-free gems, each one showing a bunch of khaki-clad youngsters doing something hep in front of a blank background: skateboarding, break dancing, or, most memorably, swing dancing to the funky strains of Louis Prima’s ”Jump, Jive an’ Wail.”
That ”Khakis swing” spot — which, ironically, employs an old-fangled dance to unstodgify the pants — has a shot every bit as cool as a G.I. Joe look-alike driving a Nissan. The camera freezes on a beaming twentysomething guy doing a midair split, then pivots almost 90 degrees to the left. As directed by photographer Matthew Ralston, the effect recalls those 3-D stereo-vision goggles. (The scene was actually shot with two cameras, then meshed together with a computer.)
”Khakis swing” is reminiscent of the best movie musicals — full of exuberant movement so seemingly effortless, you feel you’ve danced yourself. Yet, in the end, they’re not as effective in hawking their product as the more distilled New Beetle ads. Watching ”Swing” makes me want to twirl a partner at The Derby or buy some Glenn Miller records. But as for buying khakis, I’m sticking with jeans. New Beetle ads: A- Gap ads: B+