Ad Report Card

Honda’s Incredible Driving Contraption

The car ad you’ll be e-mailing to all your friends.

When things just work—in unexpected ways
When things just work—in unexpected ways

Last week, in two columns, I wrote about advertisers’ attempts both to stoke and to smother brand messages spreading “virally” across the Web. When such campaigns work in their favor, marketers like the idea that their message travels more efficiently than it can in a traditional television spot, which of course must be aired over and over to reach the widest audience. But here’s an interesting variation: What about a traditional broadcast ad that also happens to be viewable on the Web and is so compelling that people start e-mailing it and linking to it?

Reader Ken Whipple was the first of several people last week who sent me a link to an impressive Honda spot that’s airing in the United Kingdom. You can see it here on a Honda site. The spot begins with a ball bearing that nudges forward, tapping another rolling part into a cog and setting off an incredibly elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like contraption—or interlocked series of contraptions—spread across a long room and built from various parts of a Honda Accord. At one point, for instance, just enough oil is spilled from a can to tilt a piece of glass and roll some ball bearings, whose weight lifts the battery, which sparks the fan, which spurts forth a few feet to bump the muffler forward a little, which—OK, you get the idea. In the end, the key is punched to close the windows on a fully assembled Accord, and an announcer says (somewhat smugly), “Isn’t it nice when things just work?” Shot in one continuous take, it’s a highly satisfying 120 seconds. Which is why people are e-mailing the link around.

According to this article in the Daily Telegraph, the assembly-line-style stunt is not a triumph of special effects—it’s real. It took six months to plan and 606 takes over four days to get one in which everything worked right. It’s actually a little surprising that Honda is out there bragging about what a huge pain this project was: After all, “Isn’t it nice when things just work—after 605 failed attempts?” is not such a compelling sell.

An apparently London-based blog called Swish Cottage speculates that the spot might have been inspired by a film called The Way Things Go,in which a similar stunt goes on for an astonishing half an hour. In what may be a sad comment on my own level of cultural awareness, I had thought of Mousetrap, the board game of “zany action on a crazy contraption!” (That annoying little plastic diver always seemed to veer off to the side in the end—very frustrating.) The ad makers actually do cite Mousetrap, as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Anyway, in a saturation TV campaign, a spot like this can wear out its welcome; once you’ve seen it a couple of times, it gets a little tiring. But the first time you see it, it’s riveting, makes a strong impression, and makes you want to say, “Hey, check this out.” Which is why, despite being shot for television, it’s actually perfect for the Web—and which underscores the idea that things can work in the most unpredictable ways.