The importance of being earnest

Cynicism only gets you so far; these days brands need to recognise the importance of being earnest.

My favourite advert is a press execution for VW’s “Suprisingly ordinary prices” campaign. It’s a photo showing a bride and groom in the foreground, hopelessly out of focus, whilst crystal clear in the background is a passing bus with an ad that says “Polo L. £8290” pasted to the side.

It’s magically good. It’s got a price on it and not one, but two, logos. Yet it manages to be incredibly smart. It’s actually a meta-advert, an advert about an advert, and being ‘meta’ in the 90s was almost as cool as being a gypsy.

But here’s the thing I especially love: its nastiness. It mocks the one ritual that the British regard with reverence. The brand does not step forward to say ‘but obviously we enjoy a good wedding as much as the next automotive manufacturer and doesn’t she look wonderful ladies and gentle­men?’ We’re left at the point of maxi­mum cynicism. It’s Four Weddings and a Funeral that ends when Hugh Grant runs away from the church.

Obviously a great deal has happened in the intervening decade, but this ad is exemplary of the tone of intelligent advertising ever since. Detached, pessimistic in its view of people, ironic in its framing of infor­mation. During the fat years frankly anything else was an insult to our ennui.

Compare and contrast, then, the latest TV spot for the VW Passat, also from DDB. A banker emerges from an office block, having just been made redundant, whereupon he suddenly breaks into a rendition of Morecambe and Wise’s Positive Thinking. He winks. He skips.

It’s not a stupid advert. The London that the ad takes place in is a realistic­ally unfriendly place, but the message is positive. The note of optimism is, I do believe, real.

Obama, environmentalism and economic collapse have created the ideal conditions for this return to earnestness. There’s nothing sarcastic about ‘Yes we can’, cynicism won’t stop the ice-caps melting and it turns out while you were off acting jaded and aloof a load of other pricks took over, declared war on half the world and spent all the money on stuff that didn’t exist. How’s that for ironic?

Some brands are finding the change easier to handle. Check out the new US Levi’s campaign Go Forth [see CR Blog]. Walt Whitman, captured on wax cylinder and sounding 500 years old, recites the poem America over images of fresh-faced kids running into dark landscapes, re-conquering the wild spaces of apathy. Does it also hide the meaning ‘Go Forth and….’ do the only thing that 20 year-olds in my day did with genuine enthusiasm? Sorry, I can’t help it.

The question remains whether we elderly consumers can change gear as quickly as advertisers. OK, Levi’s, but when we see a VW logo, aren’t we still on guard for the clever barb?

The endline for the Passat film is ‘One thing you can be sure of’. When I posted it on my blog more than one reader was convinced that they must mean, not the Passat, but death.

Gordon Comstock is a freelance copywriter and blogs at

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