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Aging Astronauts Selling Cars

a still from the "Commander" ad for the Audi R8 ad by VBP

a still from the "Commander" ad for the Audi R8 ad by VBP

Although I didn't watch much of the World Series on Sunday, my understanding is that the Denver Nuggets defeated the Carolina Hurricanes. I wasn't paying all that much attention as I watched the game's the first inning, but after Denver kicked a birdie, a commercial came on that caught my eye.

By now, Super Bowl commercials are hyped for being of exceptional high quality (or for being exceptionally bizarre). But even so this particular ad was noteworthy in that it told a tight, compelling narrative. It was like a little 60-second movie.

We see an Aging Astronaut lost in his memories of his mission to the Moon from many decades ago. His son stops by for a visit and hears from his caretaker that his dad hasn't been eating and that this is part of an ongoing mental and physical decline. The son then has an idea and invites his dad to take a drive with him in his new car. As he approaches this new car, we see images of a younger version of the Aging Astronaut as he made his way toward his spacecraft. We then see images of his past launch (or at least stock footage of the unmanned Apollo 4 launch) intercut with images of his present driving experience. The Aging Astronaut smiles just as he did so many years ago as he was flying into space.  

I smiled as I watched the ad. My wife's response to seeing the sleek metallic grey car featured in the ad (The 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus) was to say, "That's pretty." My child's response to seeing the footage of the rocket launch was, "Wow."

It might seem odd for a German car company to use the past glories of the US Space program as a way of selling cars (this is especially true given the fact that GM had a close association with the US space program and famously provided Apollo astronauts with Corvettes). That being said, much of the engineering of the Saturn V rocket pictured in the closing seconds of the commercial was done by former Nazi scientists secretly smuggled out of Germany at the end of World War II. Their story is a fascinating one, but that's another topic for another blog post. 

Anyway, the commercial successfully conveys that Audi is something cool enough for young, attractive men (with $200k to drop on a sports car) but is also a piece of machinery that even retired astronauts can respect. More importantly, it has the power to bring these two generations together (provided the senior citizen you're hoping to connect with is a professional driver on a closed course). Audi really hopes that in the future you will think about this ad as opposed to the fact that Audi's parent company his been embroiled in a scandal stemming from engineering a way to intentionally cheat emissions testing (notice Audi dropped its "Truth in Engineering" tagline from the commercial).

The ad was produced by Venables, Bell and Partners who have done a number of Audi's more recent commercials (interestingly, VBP also does "customer experience" consulting work and were responsible for the signage, messaging and event theme for the Barclay’s Center by SHoP Architects). The ad was directed by Craig Gillespie who has several filmmaking credits to his name including Lars and the Real and Million Dollar Arm. The production values of the commercial are incredibly high. The spacesuit worn by the younger version of the Aging Astronaut is a good reproduction of the A7L suit worn by the Apollo Astronauts (and designed and build by a women's undergarment company - another story for another day) who flew to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It should be noted, however, that although this particular suit did make use of both blue and red collar rings, they never did so on the same flight (the commercial shows the younger version of the Aging Astronaut with a red neck ring whereas his mustached wingman has a blue collar). Apparently the Aging Astronaut has no memory of the third crew member who would have flown with him on an Apollo mission which is all for the best as it makes for a tighter narrative.

But perhaps the most significant - and perhaps the saddest - accuracy in the commercial is that the Aging Astronaut is depicted as being rather old. 

Most of the astronauts were in their late thirties when they went to the moon (if anything the younger version of the Aging Astronaut may be too young). The last Lunar landing occurred in 1972, almost 45 years ago which means that of the twelve humans that have walked on the moon, all of them who are still alive are into their 80s today. Just this past week, Ed Mitchell passed away in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was the last surviving member of his Apollo 14 crew. It is a sad fact that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when there will no living person who has walked on the surface of another world.

It's not often that a car commercial gets you ponder mortality, but then again, this is the Super Bowl we're talking about.

You know what's also good about this ad? The music. The song that begins to swell in the background as the octogenarian begins his joyride is of course "Starman" by David Bowie. Bowie, who himself died only a few weeks ago, is a perfect choice. The creators of the ad couldn't have known that was going to happen, but it does add another layer to what was already a surprisingly deep TV commercial:

There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds.
There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He's told us not to blow it
'Cause he knows it's all worthwhile.