Great (But Frustrating) Commercials: Nissan Leaf
I almost never watch commercials anymore. Most of my video is of the streaming variety, either through Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or YouTube. When I do take advantage of broadcast or cable TV, it's usually captured on my Tivo, where I can fast-forward through commercials. On the rare occasion when I'm watching live TV (usually sports), I'm often with friends and don't pay much attention to commercial blather. In the vanishingly rare cases when I'm watching live TV and aren't talking during the commercials, I'm usually mentally tuned out because most commercials are either obvious or annoying or both. This explains why, in true Car Lust style, I just recently viewed and am just now writing up an advertisement that originally aired three months ago.
Over the weekend, this Nissan Leaf commercial caught me in one of those few moments when both my television and my brain were tuned in, and I thought it was stunningly well-executed. It was frustrating, for reasons I'll get into after the video and the jump, but very well-done.
First of all, as a piece of advertising, this ad is extraordinary. Its simple and elegant message, portraying how disconcerting and gross a world powered exclusively by gasoline would be, results in an interesting visual that pushes all the right visceral buttons. I wouldn't be at all surprised if future generations think about the idea of hundreds of millions of carbon monoxide-powered cars on the road with as much distaste as we'd look at a two-stroke dentist's drill. The visuals in this ad have the potential to do more to sway public opinion on electric cars than any amount of proselytizing by true believers.
Here are a few short thoughts on the ad, before I get to the real meat:
- I actually thought the weathered gasoline-powered appliances looked generally pretty cool--like something out of Mad Max, or the steampunk movement. Who else here would love to have a computer with a throttle, if for no other reason than to floor it when the CPU starts to drag?
- Was anybody else reminded of Jeremy Clarkson's bitchin' V-8 blender?
- If this world truly had no electricity, how did the smug Nissan Leaf guy charge up his car? Was the car drafted and designed on a series of gasoline-powered computers?
- This alternate gasoline-powered reality might be a bit more compelling if all of their appliances weren't powered by dirty, poorly maintained, two-stroke engines.
My real frustration with the ad, though, is that it's a bit unfair. Yes, it's just an advertisement, and its job is to sell its point of view, but it's just so well-done and effective that I'm worried that people will accept its message verbatim.
There are a few small, niggling ways in which the ad is unfair. For example, while I'm a big proponent of the concept of electric cars, there are environmental complications involved with electric cars that (understandably) aren't depicted here. Today's electric cars and appliances do generate pollution, in the form of electricity generation. That generation may be more efficient because it's done in a bulk fashion, and it doesn't puff exhaust directly in your face, but it does still happen.
Today's gasoline-powered cars are also astonishingly efficient and clean when compared with their predecessors and in context of the work that they do--comparing them, however comedically, to smoke-belching two-stroke engines is doing today's gasoline engines a disservice. And finally, electric cars carry batteries, which are toxic and disruptive to create and dispose. An incredibly tone-deaf and overly defensive ad agency could create a response to the Nissan Leaf ad that shows everyday people having to step over discarded batteries and drinking polluted water from a site near a lithium mine.
All of these are trifling and nitpicky issues, particularly considering this is an advertisement, not a documentary. Of course it's going to paint its product in the best possible light and its competition (including the rest of Nissan's lineup, in this case) in the worst possible light.
My biggest problem with this ad's unfairness comes at 0:43, when we see the sad-sack protagonist at the filling station with his Chevy Volt while forlornly watching the Leaf guy drive away in his "100-percent electric, zero-gas" Nissan Leaf. This is an obvious attempt to pin the Volt with a Scarlet G, smearing it as one of those nasty gasoline-powered cars, inferior to the purity of the Leaf. That seems unfair and misleading.
If you want to drive purely on electricity, you can do that in a Volt just as easily as in a Leaf. Stay within the Volt's range radius, and it hums along as silently, cheerfully, and cleanly as the Leaf. The difference is that if you venture outside the Leaf's range, it leaves you stranded. If you venture outside the Volt's range, it won't. Try to drive the Leaf cross-country, and you'll either be left stranded or forced to tip-toe your way between charging points. Try to drive the Volt cross-country, and you'll have no problem. You're not forced to use gasoline in the Volt; it's a perk that makes the Volt just as versatile as a conventional car. In my mind, this is what makes the Volt an incredibly interesting and compelling car.
To put this another way, deriding the Volt for having an auxiliary gasoline engine is exactly the same as deriding a homeowner for buying an emergency gas generator. It's not as if he's planning on running his house on the generator all the time--it's just there in case of emergency, and in those emergencies he'll have power and you won't.
Don't get me wrong; I think the Leaf is an exceptional commuter car, and I would happily use one for that purpose (though if I actually had $30K to spend, I'd likely buy six $5,000 cars instead). That Car Guy also seemed to like the Leaf in his preview earlier this year.
But ultimately, this has little to do with the Leaf as a car and much more to do with the Volt's portrayal here. The Volt's versatility is not a vice, and the Leaf's pure-electric design is not a virtue. Trying to argue otherwise felt like the only false note in an otherwise excellent advertisement.