All in the Detail

A handful of brands have dominated the upper echelons of creative, memorable advertising over the last decade. Advertising for which people sit through the dross in the hope of catching again, and seek out on YouTube months after the TV run ceased – Abbott Mead Vickers for Guinness, HHCL for Tango, Fallon for Sony Bravia. But perhaps one of the most enduring, varied and consistently innovative campaigns of the past few years has been Wieden+Kennedy’s treatment of Honda UK.

A creative behind several of the most memorable of these – not least Cog, better known as the mesmerising two-minute chain reaction made from parts of a Honda Accord – is copywriter Ben Walker. And while he tips a nod to the surreal pin-striped, blender-headed mannequin and attention-grabbing staff self-portraits that adorn the entrance to W+K, much of his inspiration comes from a razor-sharp attention to everyday detail.

The Accord was one of the first briefs on the new account, and the initial feeling was that there was space to talk about ‘warm engineering’ – a satisfying, affable, gentle type of technology to contrast the cold, teutonic efficiency marketed by Germanic counterparts Mercedes, Audi and BMW, or as Ben’s art director Matt Gooden put it at the time, “like the way all the bits in Mousetrap fit together.”

This in turn sparked a recollection of an experimental chain reaction film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and before they knew if they were dismantling a hatchback – then stringing the components back together like automotive dominos. ‘Isn’t it nice when things just work?’ was Ben’s beautifully simple tagline, and after more than 600 takes, it did – although they had to film it in two halves, simply because there wasn’t a warehouse long enough to cram it all in.

Incredible patience, precision and hours in the pursuit of that flawless take – it’s no surprise that Ben cites Michel Gondry and Stanley Kubrick as creative influences for their sharp attention to detail. But another of his ads, this time for the Honda Civic, drew inspiration from a less lofty source.

“There’s a Dorling Kindersley book in our office called The Way Things Work – which shows the actual way things work,” he grins. “They talk about something mundane like a stapler or a zip, and you think fuck me; that’s amazing. No-one ever points those things out to you.” A Civic, Ben reasons, is practical but not particularly cool – so they sprinkled this wonderment in the small unnoticed things in life onto a fast-cut editing technique inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

In the film the technique snapshots the pill-popping, tea-drinking, remote-clicking lifestyle of a desperately lonely menopausal woman on speed, and her deteriorating junkie son – unsurprisingly the ad brings a more wholesome Dorling Kindersley edge, integrating macro shots of certain life-enhancing features on a Civic with everyday items that make life easier, but tend to go forgotten. Again the tagline makes it all relevant, as a tagline should: ‘Why is it, the better something does its job, the more we take it for granted?’

Although fewer people are interested in the craft of advertising copy – and award-winning ads seem to be increasingly about effects and glamorous art direction – Ben insists that it’s still absolutely integral to brand communication. “It took me ages to write that line,” he grins.

And Grrr! – Honda’s rainbow-coloured award-magnet, which sees chugging diesel engines knocked out of the sky to the cheerful tune of ‘hate something, change something, make something better’ – is, he points out, built around a song. “There are optimistic visuals and the colour palette is good, but it’s all about the language. Copy makes it relevant to the brand. It’s still hugely important, but people don’t realise it.”

Ben took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

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