Great Commercials--Datsun 280ZX "Black Gold"
I stumbled across this commercial the other day and thought it worthy of a Car Lust commercial deconstruction. My thoughts are after the jump.
0:01--I love the soundtrack. This was the era of disco, and it's used to good effect here. You want hip? You want to be with it? You want the right chariot for your night out on the town? You want the Datsun 280ZX Black Gold.
0:08--After a slow unveil, we see the 10th Anniversary Datsun 280ZX in its full glory. Black-and-gold paint schemes were all the rage at the time--think of the Bandit Pontiac Trans Am, the Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, and the John Player Formula 1 Lotus paint schemes--and I'm still a fan decades later. I think this 280ZX looks gorgeous. Also, note the moonscape background and the fog on the ground (some of which was lit to appear gold). Both the fog and the moonscape were commercial staples at the time and featured prominently in the 1984 Corvette commercial that kicked off our commercial deconstruction series.
0:10--We have more gold fog, and another view of the new, highly attractive paint job. So far, so good.
0:11--"Very few will possess its limited number." They clearly mean that the 280ZX 10th Anniversary edition is being made in limited numbers and that very few will own one, but they chose an incredibly clunky way to say it. Nobody is actually possessing a number--and "its limited number" seems to imply that the 280ZX actually owns the limited number. This might seem pedantic, but I can imagine English teachers wincing every time this commercial aired.
0:12--Here's where things really start to go wrong. Who is this woman? What is she meant to represent? Why did she turn her head to look into the camera? Or, conversely, why was she looking away from it in the first place? Her overall appearance bothers me a bit too. I'm not sure whether it's her long neck, her thoroughly blank look, or the way her head rotated over to look at the camera, but something about her reminds me of an ostrich or a prarie dog. It's almost as if she's prey and is instinctively watching out for a predator.
0:13--And, of course, here's the predator--though instead of a lion, it's a 1980s scenester adorned with a mane of carefully teased hair and a truly epic mustache. The mustache was never a more visible part of pop culture than in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and, when complemented by the right car, clothes, hairstyle, and chest-hair-revealing shirt, it helped establish the wearer as a sophisticated but edgy with-it guy. It worked for Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, and it definitely works for this guy.
0:15--As the growly-voiced announcer crows that the 280ZX is "so lavishly appointed", we are treated to images of a nondescript pushbutton AM/FM tape player, gold fingernails sliding slowly over what look like gold vinyl seats, a Hitachi 8-track player, and an array of computerized warning lights. Now that's luxury. I realize I'm being snarky and have the unfair benefit of 30 years of hindsight, but it's almost as if this sequence was built expressly to be ironically funny for future generations.
0:19--The ostrich woman and the mustache guy are going in for a kiss--inevitably, I suppose, though I have no idea what this has to do with the car. Wait, does she have Lord of the Rings elf ears on? Exactly what is this?
0:23--"DRIVEN ... to the ultimate!" It certainly sounds imposing, but what does it really mean? Do they mean that Datsun is driven to make their car better? Do they mean that drivers will be tempted to drive this car to the limit? Neither of those two interpretations necessarily make sense, but I'm struggling to come up with an alternate explanation.
0:26--The end of the commercial features the 280ZX's hazard flashers blinking in time with the disco soundtrack. I don't think I've ever seen hazard lights prominently featured in a commercial before, possibly because hazards carry a connotation that the car has broken down.
The most significant thing about this commercial in my mind is that the car never moves. We aren't even told anything about how the car performs. We hear that it's rare, we hear that it's well-appointed, and we were told that it's "DRIVEN ... to the ultimate," but I found it telling that that a commercial shilling what's ostensibly a sports car was completely silent on the car's dynamic abilities.
That's ultimately not too surprising, given the era. This was the era of personal luxury, in which comfort and a stylized appearance was king. This was the era in which Ricardo Montalban cooed over Corinthian leather and drove sternly but sedately along the road while proclaiming "it is on the highway where Cordoba best answers my demands."
It's tempting to write off those influences as restricted to the rococo Ford Thunderbirds and Chrysler Cordobas of the time, resplendent with their vinyl roofs, wire wheels, and opera-windows, but performance cars were by no means immune. Gas crises and increased regulation had already chipped away at performance, so most domestic performance cars at the time put a much higher premium on image and visual aggression than dynamic ability. Remember, this was the era of Trans Ams that featured gaudy graphics and low-compression station wagon V-8s, overweight and underpowered Chevrolet Corvettes, and be-stickered, 139-horsepower King Cobra Mustang IIs.
The 280ZX itself was longer and heavier than the original Datsun 240Z sports car on which it was based, with a greater emphasis on comfort and passenger space and less on outright performance. But even so, it performed better than most cars of its time, so I think it's very interesting that this commercial completely ignored its performance.
This is what I find fascinating about vintage car commercials, by the way. They're fun to deconstruct, but the deeper satisfaction comes from using these commercials as 30-second flashes of insight into a different era--or, at least, into how advertisers saw the era, which can be equally interesting.