One of the today's more memorable commercials is also one of the most puzzling.
The new Kia Soul TV spot has been coming up in casual conversation with my friends, both in and outside of the ad business. The sheer weirdness of the commercial catches people's attention, but no one can figure out what it means (or what it has to do with selling cars).
It features the brand's iconic hamsters and, as usual, it's driven by a funky sound track ("In My Mind"). But this time, the rodents and their favorite car appear on the stage of an 18th century opera house.
As brand personalities, the hamsters have been incredibly successful. In fact, in July of this year,
Kia's Executive VP of Marketing and Communications revealed to Ad Age that sales were "up 78% since 2008, thanks in part to the success of the campaign."
But the dancing animals aren't really what's strange about the spot; we're used to them by now from other commercials (covered in a previous post). It's the opera house and the trip back in time (as if the car itself were a way-back machine) that's got people asking what it all means -- and prompts the desire to decipher.
Now it could be that this juxtaposition of time-frames and styles is meant to be suggestive, but vague. I remember reading a review of The Hunger Games (I think in The Nation) that argued that the film was just ambiguous enough so that people could read anything into it.
Nevertheless there's a specific meme being replicated here that pop-culture students will recognize. And that's the motif of (often cartoonish and always plebian) pop culture entertainers invading the highfalutin world of the opera house. Here's an earlier example of this scenario, in which Bugs Bunny torments an opera singer with his mad conducting:
Both the Kia spot and the Bugs Bunny clip are playing a little with high and low. Both base their humor around a scenario where popular entertainers (stand-ins for the common folks) assume aesthetic control over the snobs. As the Kia brand copy about this commercial on YouTube puts it:
"They're back. And this time they've gone way back in their time-traveling Kia Soul. That's right, the hamsters are bringing down the house, only it's an 18th century opera house. And they're showing a traditional upper-crust crowd how to party their britches off with Axwell's remix of 'In My Mind'"...
This all fits with the brand. The positioning of the Kia Soul, as I understand it, certainly depends more on the appeal of cool than it does luxury, status or elegance. And it's a car sold to the younger crowd, so privileging contemporary pop over old school opera, of course, makes sense. It offers a classic generational appeal as old as "Roll Over Beethoven."
And the nudge of the high by the low also rhymes with the contemporary mood, in that it suggests a wee bit of class (as well as generational) animosity. After all, we're living in a time when there's more popular awareness of the class dimension of social and economic problems -- as in the 99% 's relationship to the 1%. So even though the commercial's creators at David and Goliath probably didn't have this in mind when the put their concepts together, the spot may have picked up on this feature of the zeitgeist by osmosis.
This might also explain the time travel. By displacing any implicit class irritation into the past, the commecial can play low vs. high without risking offense. Maybe that's why it reminds me of a dream or allegory, whose bizarre quality is the result of the fact that it cannot express its critical thoughts outright.
In any case, the younger crowd ("Millennials", "Gen Y") for whom the spot is created have plenty of class-related issues confronting them -- from the scarcity of good jobs, to exorbitant debt from student loans. As the Daily Beast noted, many folks of this generation feel screwed by the system and doubt they will be able to achieve the middle-class standard-of-living their parents enjoyed.
Thinking of all this colored how I interpreted the time/locale of the opera house in the spot. Adweek saw it as the world of Mozart, but for me it brought to mind the world of Louis the XVI, before the French revolution. Though in this version of history, of course, the conflict between high and low is resolved joyously, through pop culture -- its music, moves, products and brands.
But maybe this bit of over-reading is all just, as the track in the spot puts it, "in my mind." Thoughts?