My Current Favorite TV Ad

By James Fallows

If I were choosing a career title-winner for favorite ad, I would have to recognize the annoying-but-non-forgettable "Five-Dollar Foot Lonnnng!" campaign Subway has been running since 2008. It drives people crazy, but apparently it is magic for drawing customers into the stores; on its debut it was so effective that Subway had bread shortages. I find the minor-chord progressions weirdly compelling, and I realize that I always stop to look at the screen when it comes on. 

(Video at end of this post, plus musicology for those who haven't followed the story.)

But the ad that is on my mind right now is one that has been running frequently during the NFL playoff bonanza. It's for the Honda Civic, and it usually appears as one of an assortment of 30-second clips. Here is an example:

I think the extended play, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-scale version -- actually only two and a half minutes long -- is extremely interesting for the world view it presents. Check it out for yourself:

What I find noteworthy, even brave, about this commercial is that it acknowledges all the reasons to feel downcast about economics, politics, the environment, everything.  That's the first 30 seconds of the long version, and the first five of the short ones. But then it says: a lot of really exciting and positive things are also going on, to the extent of declaring, Today is pretty great! 

Why is that interesting?

  • It's not simple boosterish/denialist "We're number one!" talk.
     
  • Nonetheless, it's a bolder "glass is way more than half full" pitch than I recall seeing in any other political or commercial campaign. As the lyrics say at 2:15 of the long version, "For the most part, give or take, today is  actually .... pretty great." 
     
  • It mainly features people in their late teens through early 30s, who -- like their counterparts at every other stage of history -- are tired of hearing that everything is terrible. Because they know how much actually is terrible, in their own situations and generally -- but also know that everything is still starting for them. Families, careers, possibilities, lives.
    And, the real reason why this totally got my attention:
     
  • It's a video-advertisement version of what my wife and I keep running into as we go from one of our smallish cities to another.

    They all have serious problems -- as every place does. Inequality and environmental run-down and drug use and violence and parts of the community frozen out or left behind. 

    But also each of them we've seen so far has had ambitious, exciting, economic and environmental and educational and scientific projects underway. (As reeled off at roughly 1:45-1:55 of the long clip.) The emotional and "argumentative" arc in these ads, especially the long version, very much matches the emotional and intelligence cycle we've been through in these reporting trips.     

You can read an ad-world perspective on the campaign here. I loved the Eminem/Chrysler "Imported From Detroit" Superbowl ad three years ago. That was a marker of a shift in business realities and attitudes. This new ad could be too.  


Back in 2008 Seth Stevenson wrote about the "Five Dollar" ad, a nice version of which is shown below, in Slate.    

He found the man who had come up with this earworm-eligible music and asked him to explain its secret power:

I called the composer, Jimmy Harned (of the boutique music outfit Tonefarmer), to see whether he might confirm my notion that there's something ominous going on in his work.

"The chord structure does imply something dark," he agreed, getting out his guitar to demonstrate over the phone. "On the word long, [the guitar part] goes down from a C to an A-flat," he said, strumming, "which is kind of a weird place. It's definitely not a poppy, happy place. It's more of a metaly place. But at the same time, the singing stays almost saccharine." (The vocals shift to form an F minor over the guitar's A-flat.)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/my-current-favorite-tv-ad/283194/