Are ads just tricks to make us buy things, or can they be more?


Photo credit: Ren Rader

Illustration by Ren Rader

A couple weeks ago, while I was watching the Longhorns stumble their way to another loss to those blasted Sooners, my misery was interrupted by a spree of ads. I’ve never been one to enjoy ads — I usually just mindlessly look at my phone while they are playing — but one caught my eye, and as if it was a black hole, I was stuck in its event horizon.

The ad was for Volkswagen, a company working hard to recuperate its image after lying on emissions tests, and this ad beautifully assuaged all the lingering disdain I had for the company, making me forget for the moment their greedy foibles and simply enjoy their artistic vignette.

The ad opens with an overhead shot of a chic teen walking along a concrete path with his ears and eyes plugged into his phone. A parade of runners drift around him, the overhead view evoking the image of a school of fish swimming around a shark. After this deftly orchestrated scene, we are shown more examples of the teen being buried in his phone, not paying any attention to the movement of the world around him. Aptly, “Turn Around, Look at Me” by The Vogues plays in the background of the ad. As the melody plays, the teen walks behind a car that is pulling out of a driveway. The driver driving is busy talking in the front seat and doesn’t notice the person behind them. Luckily, the car is looking, due to its spiffy new backup camera and override capabilities and stops itself from injuring the teen. The teen doesn’t look up, the digital void still calling to him. The women looks back, relieved she hasn’t injured anyone. The ad closes with the car driving away, the teen continuing his virtual stroll and the end lyrics of the song “Turn around, look at me!” slowly trailing off as the commercial fades to black.

Woven into this tale of automation saving humans from their idiocy is also the simple tale that our life isn’t just within our gadgets, but all around us. The journey the audience takes with the chic teen is littered with scenes of people outside of the virtual world, who are looking at what’s around them and soaking it all in. While there is no antagonist in this short 30-second story, the blond, track-suited teen the viewer follows is not painted in a positive color. He is disconnected from reality and is injured for not looking up and seeing what is around him. The ad may be about Volkswagen’s four-door SUV that I’ll never buy, but it is also a cautionary tale of what modern society has become: a place where reality is dull compared to a constructed one, and humanity must rely on robots to save us from ourselves.

Now this analysis may seem to be a stretch, yet I think that is where the beauty of this ad really shines. Its apparent simplicity allows it to be whatever its viewer wants it to be. It can be a commentary of society in the eyes of an overzealous critic, or it can be a cookie-cutter commercial for an overpriced automobile from a less-than-ideal multi-billion dollar company. Either way, it’s up to the viewer.

It is curious as to why Volkswagen made such a smart ad. Where exactly does this ad fit into their directive? Is their marketing team led by disciples of Paul Thomas Anderson? Or have they cracked the code at creating ads that merge together capital goals and artistic ingenuity. While I am no Don Draper, nor do I have any background in marketing, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that making an eye-catching, mind-churning ad is the best way to get people to buy your stuff.

Maybe that’s all this ad is, a perfectly crafted commercial aimed at getting the mental gears turning and hopefully pushing a viewer or two towards selling that old Camry and getting that shiny new Tiguan. Or if you’re endlessly searching for the art in it all, its a well shot vignette that simply asks its viewer turn around, look up from your phone and marvel at what’s around.

So can ads be more than just a capital-minded presentation? Yes. They can be whatever the viewer’s imagination can stretch them to become. That isn’t to say ever single Doritos or Ford truck commercial is the next “Citizen Kane” but for every dull 30 seconds of boring monotony, there is a diamond in the rough. An ad that goes beyond an agenda and provides something more than its original programming: It presents an idea.