COLUMN: Commercial Wisdom
Published: Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 5, 2013 01:09
I was inspired by a car commercial this summer. As most do, this car commercial spends the first 20 of its 30 seconds setting up a phrase carefully crafted at a boardroom table, focus-grouped ad infinitum, sent to marketing, who wants a star, who gets a star, who then speaks softly into a silver mic in a recording space tucked into a golden LA hillside—it sets up a phrase shaped and re-shaped by all involved departments until it becomes a statement representative of an ideology the car company represents, and inextricably linked to the car company’s identity per consumers. Kia works hard to come up with “Impossible to Ignore,” its statement for the Cadenza, a new luxury vehicle. What’s true of and really odd about this statement and most other company’s comparable statements is that it’s simplistic and entirely forgettable. Until you’re in front of the TV watching the commercial again, they’re difficult to recall. You can think of the car, maybe even the shots in the commercial itself, but not the words. It’s like the statement diffuses into viewers’ heads and bypasses the conscious facilitated by its simple language and structure. It just seeps into our skulls, and is wrung out when a product name recurs in life. This is obviously intentional. It’s also, quite clearly, a very effective marketing tactic. But this commercial didn’t do that. The set-up cinematography was largely the same (it was a luxury vehicle): night-time shot of car burning rubber down a highway backgrounded in the distance by what could be any big U.S. city lit to impress, low bumper shot of car burning through a harshly lit tunnel, slow-mo streak shots through swanky interior and dash, not forgetting to include beautiful model in each pass while car ostensibly speeds down highway, etc. Someone was speaking. Male, voice finished smooth. He intoned Car and Driver accolades, vehicle specifications, and suggestive description. The statement pause arrived on cue, sign of a commercial well-built, and then I heard the satin voice say in statement voice, “Control is the essence of power.”
Which is simple, but not as simple as “Built Ford Tough,” and is not a sparkler, but not as spark-less as “Impossible to Ignore.” For some reason it resisted seepage, and found a home in my conscious thought. Much to the detriment of the car company, I’ll add—I have absolutely no idea which created the commercial. Any and all sensory associations I’ve formed I outlined above. I also don’t really know how to assess the work of the mysterious car company. Is the fact that I know it came from a car commercial enough? I think not. For some reason, I only vaguely recall Mercedes when I hear “Control is the essence of power,” but if it were from an Infiniti commercial, I wouldn’t be shocked—it could easily be. I doubt Infiniti’s intentions were to send me flashing wallet to a Mercedes dealership. In any case, I hardly thought about buying anything afterward. I actually stopped and thought about the phrase in itself, independent of the car. You might say they lost me then. I thought so much about it, I decided to build an opinions piece around it. It failed, I guess, because their statement was actually pretty smart.
So I’m an English major, a creative writing concentrator at that, and I understand there’s a good chance I’ve overstated everything thus far. My thought on that is: whatever.
“Control is the essence of power” is basically a perfectly distilled version of everything I’ve learned about writing. What we crazy creative-types desperately want is to evoke something from those who experience what we create, from you. We work toward the “ability to act or affect something strongly,” which is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “power.” We work to gain powers, of a sort—to move you in some way of our design. And look: the OED’s definition of “control” is “the fact of controlling (my opinion: stupid), or of checking and directing action.” Because words are a writer’s vehicle of evocation, of “directing action,” a writer learns that each one matters tremendously, and so monitors their direction with extreme precaution. It requires knowing each one’s definition, common and uncommon usages, their connotations, and also, crucially, though it’s not a very rigorous concept, how they feel (which oddly has a lot to do with sound). Then all those things apply again to the sentence, then to the paragraph, and so on and so forth. It requires laser-like focus 100 percent of the time. And you have to care a lot. You have to want to put in the effort.
But that’s just writing—that’s just what I know. I’m convinced it’s applicable to anything. We go to Boston College because we want a lot from this world. When it’s all said and done, we want to be able to say we made something happen out there. I think it’s safe to say that’s true of everyone here. I also say we can all do it. Control is the way.