Commentary

Positively Swedish: A Ring, A Nose, A Hasselblad, And Thou


Given all the random horror happening in the world lately, I decided to focus on something easy, and perhaps, even pleasing, this week: a well-made TV spot. Remember those?

Released about 10 days ago on cable, seemingly out of sequence, this little Volvo spot has created a huge social media squall.

Commenters are polarized (fitting for the times), either hate-watching, love-watching, or just looking up and asking “What the hell was that?”

Indeed, the spot, entitled “Wedding,” from Grey Advertising, offers much to ponder. There’s the music, by Sharon Van Etten, that is unexpected and wonderful — but also surprisingly glum, perhaps in a way that is positively Swedish.

Then there’s the mystery of the four passengers who are enjoying the empty road, and this beautiful interior space, cradled by the sophisticated audio system and buttery leather seats. It supplies a mystical mood and a vibe that’s reminiscent of that great Nick Drake commercial for Volkswagen all those years ago.

But what really makes a difference here is that as a group, this new “family” presents an ambiguous tweak on the standard white, rich, straight people normally shown in commercials for vehicles in the $38K-$78K range.  

And that seems to make viewers nervous. Everything about this group is nuanced, subtle and slightly unknowable, in terms of who’s related to whom. Age, sexuality, skin color, roles — it’s not on the “binary,” as they say.

Most of the chatter is about the inspired casting of that older hipster graybeard sitting in the back. For starters, very few American dads look like him, with his abundant white hair, sizable schnoz, elegant suit, and artisanal beard. He’s a younger cross between Commander Whitehead and the Most Interesting Man in the World, seeming to scream “Hot Yoga Dad.”

And by the way, what’s he doing back there, fiddling with his pricey Hasselblad and his wedding ring?

After fondling that ring, and taking off his Ray-Ban Wayfarers, he gives the driver, a pretty blonde woman, a tender squeeze on her nicely padded shoulder. Is she his daughter/wife/lover/sister/mother? This too is a mystery, but the big thing that seems to be to be blowing even nonconventional minds on the Net: Why is this woman driving?

Jeez, Louise, you’d think that this hasn’t happened every day in America for the last 60 years or so. But here it’s seen as some kind of role reversal that’s got everyone up in arms.

Speaking of arms, I like the driver’s look, in her Oscar de la Renta outfit with the geometric lace jacket. Behind the wheel, she appears to be kind of Swedish, beautiful, with great bone structure, and seemingly strong, sturdy and reliable. 

Wait, Mother Courage is the embodiment of the Volvo!

Still, commenters seem confused as to whether she’s the bride (she’s not, she’s Hot Yoga Dad’s wife.) But there was also a lot of morbid joking about why he looks so happy, and where his actual wife might be stashed. (Is the trunk big enough?)

Most people didn’t know that the title was “Wedding," and some guessed (maybe from the semi-glum music?) that this group was coming back from a funeral. Which evoked the classic, brilliantly funny VW ad from the early ‘60s promoting penny-pinching.

But this is the opposite. Volvo: the car for pleasant post-funeral luxury motoring?  

Other, less-pleased commenters described the spot as needlessly confusing, annoying and/or pretentious, like that other automotive attention-getter, the much-parodied Matthew McConaughey campaign for the Lincoln SUV, featuring his bizarre, rambling soliloquies.

But here, we didn’t have to scratch our heads for long. Volvo recently released a second commercial, “Letter,” explaining it all — mostly.

Indeed, it shows that the spots are out of sequence. We would have understood the premise much more clearly had we seen the second one first. This shows Beardy sitting in his Volvo alone, near a lighthouse, composing his father-of-the-bride speech, and reading it out loud. (So the pictures in his fancy camera were of his daughter’s wedding)

It’s very touching, nicely written, and obviously timely for Father’s Day. He writes in a beautiful notebook with an interesting pen. With these sophisticated aesthetics, he’s either in advertising, or is one of those forward-thinking green architects who populate movies and get paid 100 times what real architects actually make.

Actually, I much prefer “Wedding” because of all of its oddness, even chronologically. In that way, it reminded me of Showtime’s “The Affair,” and some of the best episodic TV shows that people are streaming these days. Whereas this second spot is much more like advertising.

My sources tell me that there will be a longer version, an Internet-only third spot, to be released around Father’s Day, that will cover everything — even the mystery of the boys. (One is a friend, one is a son.)

Far from creating an ad with no strategy, with this work, Volvo has developed a fresh new voice for the brand. It’s not about competitiveness and aggression, like other luxury cars. It’s more nuanced, and the niche the brand wants to reach will appreciate that it’s about culture and performance.

And Volvo achieved all this buzz on a relatively tiny media budget.

I happen to think that it’s in our DNA to appreciate great ads, which people are starved for these days. Advertisers focused only on making great spots  for the Super Bowl are missing a big opportunity.

Network TV is a wasteland of amateurish, cheaply made, local junk, or pharma spots showing a walking colon, or people talking about  their “medium-to-severe" version of  diseases,  with voiceovers reminding us of side effects, like leakage and suicidal thoughts. This all seeps into the collective consciousness, sending consumers fleeing.

The first spot neatly echoes what the modern luxury Volvo demo is doing. It’s meta-media, appealing to the creative class who are home, binge-watching serialized television, puzzling out the pieces, happy to see weirdo families and couples having trouble.

Right, did someone say something about a car?

9 comments about "Positively Swedish: A Ring, A Nose, A Hasselblad, And Thou".
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  1. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, June 16, 2016 at 11:05 p.m.

    Ineffably meh.  And really - compared to the great Volvo spots of the past - Ally and Gargano's "Drive It Like You Hate It" comes to mind, this is drivel.  For recent Volvo, give me the Jean-Claude van Damme truck spots any day.

  2. Frank Newcomer from Dystopian Empire, June 17, 2016 at 1:52 a.m.

    I believe "Hot Yoga Dad," has just now become the nomenclature of a newly defined socio/demographic group. 

    My first objective as a young copywriter was the Ford Fairmont, which when unveiled to the little creative group where I occupied the "krill" position, provoked this comment from my boss. "Had any thoughts on what you want to do for a living next year?" 

    I don't think much about commercials nowadays - and even less about cars. But after reading this and goaded into looking at the spot as I might a poem or essay or painting -- I felt an emotional twinge about my 2013 XC 90R sitting in my garage, how I wished I was as thin as Yoga Dad -- I'm be happy with two out of three -- and was reminded of the times we sat in rooms and really tried to impart a visual or thought or ideal that didn't simply compliment our client's product, but attemped to reaffirm something good in us. 

    So tomorrow when I roll out of the garage and take my Vovlo to the grocery store, I'm going to feel a little better about what I'm driving. And me, too. I'd say the spot worked racther nicely. 






  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 17, 2016 at 8:18 a.m.

    It looked as if the grown children were taking Dad to his wedding in the first spot. In the second, with the band on his finger, it was after his wedding and he wanted to record his thoughts and feelings elegantly rather than spewing them into an oblong handy box. All pretty. Putting a Volvo on the car shopping/aspirational list, meh.

  4. Don Perman from self, June 17, 2016 at 8:34 a.m.

    A very thoughtful take, as usual, on an odd commercial.  But you gave it greater context and meaning, in my view.  And given recent awful current events, the spots are eerily soothing. Of course, without this column I'd never have known they exist. 

  5. Jane Farrell from Freelance, June 17, 2016 at 11:19 a.m.

    You give a thoughtful evaluation to a very enigmatic ad that makes me pay attention to it. It is beautiful and soothing, but I teeter on the edge of annoyance. No one's life is that perfect!

  6. David Vawter from Doe-Anderson, June 17, 2016 at 2:15 p.m.

    Lovely, intelligent, subtle spot, perfect for Volvo.  Did this actually run in the US?  This is the polar (hehe) opposite of the McConaughey campaign.  

  7. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, June 17, 2016 at 8:54 p.m.

    After owning Volvos for a few decades, and knowing other Volvo owners, when I first saw the "Wedding" spot, I was convinced that those four stole the car, and found the uber-expensive Hassy camera under the seat, along with the ring.  Seriously, if I'd seen that bunch behind the wheel of that car in my neighborhood, I would have dialed 911 in an instant. 

  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, June 19, 2016 at 3:15 p.m.

    someone suggests that the dad is not holding the camera at all-- that the kid riding shot gun is. Rashomon.
    and I guess I've waited long enough to expose the real secret, that gets explained in the third, longer, online execution: shot gun rider and boy in the back are romantically linked. It's a walking Rohrschalk! 

  9. Jim English from The Met Museum, June 21, 2016 at 2:52 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara.  The gentle touch on the driver's arm did it for me, and the smile from her when he did it.  Yes, yes, "nuance" is the right word. So pleasant to watch unlike the pharma outrages you refer to.

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