Yes, Wes Anderson’s car ads are sellouts. Here’s why
Client: Hyundai Azera
Director: Wes Anderson
You wouldn’t need to see the credits for the newish Hyundai Azera ads to know they were made by Wes Anderson. The first shouts Tenenbaum, the second drips Zissou. The question that has sent the New Yorker, Slate and others into twitters over the last few days is whether these ads make Anderson a “sellout”.
Anderson’s style is actually a great fit for advertising. It’s tough to get viewers to pay attention to a TV ad, especially after they’ve seen it (and hated it) once. But Anderson packs in so much detail, one YouTube commenter said he’d been sitting in front of the first FRAME for 30 minutes, soaking up the visual jokes. Now that’s sticky advertising.
But is it a sellout? The wise have stroked their beards, chewed on their dark-framed glasses and pronounced the verdict: no. At Open Culture, Colin Marshall argues that because these ads are so obviously made by Anderson, and include not only his stylistic tics (ripped off by other ad-makers) but also apparently his “fascinations” (which are harder to replicate), Anderson is keeping it real. Lots of other legendary film-makers have made advertisements, including Fellini, Lynch and Bergman. Besides, you might add, hordes of well-respected present-day directors – Ridley Scott, David Fincher – launched their careers by making ads.
Slate’s Forrest Wickman agrees. He points to a new spot made by The Wrestler’s Darren Aronofsky (for Kohls department store, starring J-Lo) as evidence of how film-makers CAN sell out – namely, by producing generic ads that don’t reflect that film-maker’s interests and aesthetics.
The New Yorker weighs in, with predictably larger words, echoing the argument that the Wes Andersoniness of Wes Anderson’s ads makes them OK, and cheerleading for the death of “selling out” as a concept at all. To a reader who says: “Problematic to categorize something made to sell cars as art, no?”, Richard Brody responds: “It’s neither more nor less problematic than considering something made to sell tickets as art.”
My response? The New Yorker, Slate and Open Culture are being trendy. They’re wearing brogues and short tight trousers and playing double keyboards in the indie band of intellectuality. They’re being fashionably unstodgy by jumping on the bandwagon of saying selling out no longer exists. They’re also 15 years late to the party. Dave Eggers scoffed at kneejerk reactions of “Sellout!” in the mid-90s (much more effectively, in my opinion), making the key point: “What matters is that you do good work.”
But what Eggers didn’t mention, though I like to think he wouldn’t dispute it: of course you can sell out. Anderson let Hyundai use his world for money, and declares his artistic intent in this case to be: selling Hyundai cars. More specifically, in the first the artistic intent is to convey the “quiet” of Azera, and in the second to celebrate the “dream of talking to our cars” as embodied by Azera.
Make no mistake: these are shallow sentiments. Nor is this work “good work” in the Eggersian sense. It is a pastiche, a self-parody. It is The Royal Tenenbaums with none of the plot or pathos. It employs Anderson’s style and tone but “sells out” the content. Hence, you know, the origin of the term.
Aronofsky really sold out least: by not prostituting his style and delivery, by not wrapping anything of himself around a dull car or department store, by just doing the job for the money like a professional. That, I can respect. Whereas trying to make art when your remit is “Make it 30 seconds long, and tell everyone the car is quiet, and don’t do anything controversial” isn’t exactly impossible, but it’s a hell of a straitjacket. You can see Anderson’s ads struggling not to suck. You can see them fail.
As for Brody’s argument that ads’ commercial imperative is no more restrictive than Hollywood’s ultimate need to make money … hogwash. Films get two hours to present an artistic case, which the producers hope will resonate enough with audiences to be profitable. Ads get 30 seconds to persuade you to pay attention to a product. It’s the difference between Dark Side of the Moon and a Comfortably Numb ringtone. Even with those two hours of relative freedom, most Hollywood films are soggy bags full of rotting market-research. What hope do film-makers have when making a mere ad?
I don’t hate ads, by any means. We have them. They’re certainly not going anywhere. I’d rather watch the Wes Anderson variety than the Darren Aronofsky one. Anderson’s are more entertaining. Have they ruined his career? Of course not. In fact, they probably help reinforce his self-branding. But is it worth remaining cynical about art made in the direct service of a sales pitch? I think it is. Does it cheapen your talent to consistently sell its actual goals to the highest bidder? I think it does. When the goal or persuasive intent is not “resonate with audience in meaningful way”, but rather “employ style to conflate love for artist with love for product”, there’s a genuine, full-frontal, nonimaginary assault on the integrity of the art’s meaning. Better to ask: what meaning? What art? Taking it further, can a car ad ever be art?
Brody himself is sober enough to point out an additional danger: namely, that up-and-coming directors who aren’t famous enough to insist on the preservation of that integrity, to protect their own vision in its early stages, will never grow strong enough to make films that resist the blandifying, PG-ising, corporatising effect of marketing money. With product placement now allowed on UK television, this is a problem that’s only going to get worse.
As for Anderson, he probably feels insulated from this threat by his gargantuan fame. But for those who applaud the “integrity” of his Hyundai ads, I say: pimping your style for adverts doesn’t make them art. It’s art every time you don’t.
First published at the Guardian.