Recently, a TV spot for Toyota's Tacoma (a pickup truck) caught my eye. Its combination of music, sound effects and imagery prompted all sorts of warlike and post-apocalyptic associations in my mind. Check it out:
You probably recognize the score that these truckers sing along with -- Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." The same tune was used in an iconic movie scene: the helicopter assault in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Film blogger B. Ruby Rich once wrote about the film that, in it, Coppola was "playing at war with all the passion of a schoolboy, relishing its spectacle." With all the explosions and spewing smoke, not to mention the daredevil bikes and racing trucks, you might say the same of this spot.
But what really gives the commercial its post-apocalyptic flair is its similarity to Mad Max films and their imagery. Check out this clip from the latest in the franchise: Mad Max: Fury Road:
Comparing the two clips, it's pretty obvious why the Creative Team at Saatchi and Saatchi decided on the commercial's scenario: it's exciting. Both the commercial and the movie are based around the classic film convention of the chase.
Add to this the fact that, as creative director John Payne tells us (in an interview with Mark Gardiner from the Motorcycle USA blog) "motorcycles are kinda universally loved and accepted by people who are into trucks..." -- and you get an idea of the creative genesis of the spot. Also, this whole scenario lends itself to the brand's positioning: the Tacoma is sold more as a recreational than utility vehicle.
But this still begs the question of "what's so exciting about the apocalypse in the first place?" For that, we have to turn to cultural criticism.
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Whenever I see scenes of (post) apocalypse, I reach for my Susan Sontag -- specifically her classic essay, "The Imagination of Disaster." In this renowned piece, Sontag wrote that her own era (mid-50s to mid-60s) was marked by both "inconceivable terror" and "unremitting banality." The apocalyptic film, she argued, offered relief from the latter:
"The lure of the generalized disaster as fantasy is that it releases one from normal obligations. The trump card of the end-of-the-world movies...is that great scene with New York or London or Tokyo discovered empty, its entire population annihilated. Or, as in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), the whole movie can be devoted to the fantasy of occupying the deserted city and starting all over again -- Robinson Crusoe on a world-wide scale."
Of course, contemporary disaster flicks don't offer quite the sort of depopulated annihilation seen in the films Sontag writes about. That's because the nuclear bomb scare of previous decades has been replaced by what worries our times more: ecological catastrophe. The "deserted city" Sontag mentions becomes instead a landscape of desertification.
Playing in the desert in the Tacoma spot is clearly fun. It's a "release", as Sontag would put it, from the "normal obligations" of the city and its work-ruled existence (usually in some bland office building). But doesn't the same sort of wild fun appear in Mad Max too? Despite its "deeper" social messages, isn't the chaotic, heavy-metal drive, along with its crew of sexy characters, first and foremost, just a blast?
Such scenarios bring to mind a term coined by cultural critic Mark Fisher to describe this sort of post-apocalyptic genre: Capitalist Realism. Fisher theorizes that since the mainstream imagination seems incapable of envisioning a way of applying the brakes to the mad drive for maximum, short-term profits, fossil fuels and speed, it's beginning to seem more realistic to simply accept the inevitable side-effects. If you can't beat it, why not join in?
This is why, as Fisher puts it, "climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing."
And judging from the popularity of this genre, you could go a step further and hypothesize that our culture is actually starting to love the idea of this sort of catastrophe, much like Doctor Strangelove was enamored of the bomb. At least it's not boring. Beats 9-5, right?
All of which suggests that the Toyota Tacoma tagline that flashes on the screen at the end of the spot is entirely appropriate. In what looks like hastily rendered, white paintbrush letters, we read "PLAY NOW."
Exactly. Tomorrow's looking kind of grim.