A lot of today’s TV commercials leave me smiling – but not for the reasons intended. The creatives are being forced to jump through ever more ridiculous hoops to make mundane products appear remarkable. With results that are unintentionally amusing.
A car that takes you from 35 to 18 again
Have you seen the “Citroen C4 Cactus – Stay Curious” commercial? The car itself is your typical boxy hatchback, but with knobs on (well, little bumps, dimples and bubbles). The designers are desperately trying to make something that’s middle aged, middle class and middle of the road look edgy, funky, wacky (or whatever the “in” word is). The result is about as cool as a middle aged bloke trying to “get down” with the kids – and causing huge embarrassment.
This is a wild guess, but I suspect the target audience is slightly older than one might imagine. I think it’s a “mutton dressed as lamb” car designed for those who are in denial about the fact they are in a rut (big mortgage, shit job, boring routine…).
There’s a clue in the voice-over
The commercial’s “Stay Curious” tack is squarely aimed at people whose life is losing its youthful lustre – just listen to the words.
The voice-over of the original version was: “The more you look…the more you ask…the more you find. Stay Curious.” This was later changed to: “Remember in the beginning…when you loved to explore…to examine…to ask…why stop now? Stay Curious.” The second version, the one they settled on, explicitly and directly plays on this nagging fear about loss of youthful curiosity.
You remember what the dormouse said?
Then there’s the music. This is what originally caught my attention, because it’s one of my all-time favourite songs – great lyrics, with a terrific swelling beat. It’s a compelling anthem for those that like to recall the excitement of youth, and has a hippy-trippy vibe that works beautifully with the theme of curiosity, pushing the boundaries and exploring alternatives – especially if you are familiar with the lyrics.
But here’s the point – how many of those in the target audience will be able to add the the words of the song in their head (as only one line is featured in the commercial)? Not many, I suspect. “White Rabbit” was written in 60s California by Grace Slick, and very much of its time. Those who remember it from that era will be eligible for a bus pass (or fast approaching that stage) – so not about to rush out and buy a car aimed at 20/30 somethings.
So, what are the words?
A car for those who like a little extra headroom?
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall
And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ‘em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call…
When she was just small
When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know
When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the Dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head
Feed your head
It’s a hippy rallying cry exhorting the listener to take drugs. Grace Slick, a childhood fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, wrote it while on acid. And the books themselves have a very hallucinatory feel to them (although there is no evidence that Carroll was a recreational use of opium or laudanum).
Vous prenez la pisse? C’est un tv commerciale sur LSD, n’est-ce pas?
The track is perfect for a commercial celebrating curiosity. But wildly inappropriate for a mass market brand like Citroen. Or anything to do with driving. The “take a trip in the Citroen C4” subtext is not going to play well with the road safety people.
I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the meetings. I can just imagine all the squirming that went on as the guys in suits, with their MBAs and spread sheets, agonised about how they could be be hip, without being, well, you know, too hip.
And how the creatives from ad agency Havas, desperately trying to do something with a bit of bollocks that’ll look good on their show reel, and cursing the corporate culture they were butting up against, must have tried every trick in the book to get away with something just mildly subversive.
We love it. But…
Writing on the horns of this dilemma they did what they always do. Compromised. They cut the song three words from the end – and killed the whole idea. We’re left with a shot of the car and Grace Slick singing “Remember what the dormouse said…”.
Huh? Those unfamiliar with the song (and there’s a lot of them judging by the comments on Youtube) will be thinking “where did the dormouse come from…and what the **** has it got to do with a car?!” This was probably rationalised internally as “So, it’s complete nonsense…but that just makes it all the more surreal – get it?” Yeah, right…
Those who do know the words, like me, are going to be smirking and laughing to themselves: “It’s crying out for the ‘Feed your head’ line, because those three words make perfect sense of everything that leads up to that point. That WAS the idea – that this is a car for those that like to feed their head.”
But the client bottled it. So we get nonsense. But worse than that the message moves from “this is a car for people who are a bit edgy and have some imagination” to “this is a car for the timid and dull’”. They’ve ended up saying the exact opposite of what they intended – a classic own goal if ever there was one.
What’s with the Cactus?
So why is this car called the Citroen C4 Cactus? I’m probably way off beam here, but this is maybe the creatives and/or designers having the last laugh – putting one over on the “straights” in the marketing department.
If you know the words to “White Rabbit” you may also be familiar with the works of Carlos Castaneda. He wrote a series of books, starting in the 60’s whilst at UCLA in California, describing his apprenticeship with a traditional “Man of Knowledge” identified as don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian from northern Mexico. They chart a mind expanding journey in which Peyote and Mescaline play a large part. Peyote is a small, spineless cactus that is a source of naturally occurring psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline. Mescaline or 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine, is known for its hallucinogenic effects similar to those of LSD and psilocybin. You get the general idea from the book covers:
In the 70s they were required reading for all those trying to find themselves, especially when lying on a beach in Greece. Your backpack was not complete without at least one well-thumbed copy.
Is the cactus reference a coded message from the creatives, one that thumbs the nose at the brand Nazis and corporate straights at Citroen HQ? We’ll never know – unless one of them chances across this post and decides to comment.