The Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial featuring an adorable little moppet pretending to be Darth Vader is the rage of the internet. Which isn’t that surprising, since sticking “Star Wars” on any piece of shit will make it the rage of the internet. See: Star Wars Prequels.
But what’s interesting is the top-down way this has become a ‘viral sensation.’ VW released a long version of the trailer days early, so a lot of people saw it. Many sites, unable to create content on their own and desperate to run anything with Star Wars in it, glommed on to the video.
After the Super Bowl the next phase of top-down marketing really kicked in. The kid from the commercial appeared on The Today Show this morning - you know, that bastion of populist coolness - complete with an uplifting story all his own - he had open heart surgery when he was just months old! Oh, Max Page, you’re not just adorable, you’re brave.
The narrative on this thing is unbeatable. And because we, as a nation, have just decided to roll over and let commercials be the most important elements of our culture, this is becoming an actual national ‘moment.’ People have accused me of being cynical simply because I wasn’t taken in by forced cuteness in a commercial for a giant corporation featuring the intellectual property of an artistically bankrupt blockbuster mainstream film series aired during the single most corporatized sporting event in the history of corporatization.
Volkswagen isn’t selling you cars, it’s selling you the good feeling you got while watching the commercial. Don Draper would have been shitting his pants if he were watching that commercial; the whole point of the ad is to manipulate you into feeling good about something by crassly using two other things that make you feel good - in this case cute kids and your fond memories of Star Wars. By conflating Star Wars with the kid the commercial strips away any other connotations of the series (and by using Darth Vader it removes any connotations of the Prequel Trilogy almost completely); it’s aimed square at 30 and 40 somethings who grew up with the original Star Wars and see passing it on to their kids as a sacrament. And all of that feeling good just happens to rub off on the Volkswagon at the end.
But what’s really funny is the weird, unexplored subtext of the whole commercial. Darth Vader is a villain, and not just any villain. He’s a genocidal maniac, one who blew up a whole planet. And the kid is playing him as a villain - he’s trying to choke the dog, for instance. And the car itself is the product of real world villainy: Volkswagen was founded in 1937 by the German Labour Front, the Nazi trade union, and got its name from Adolf Hitler himself, who wanted to create a state-sponsored car for the people - most German cars at the time were luxury models and the German people couldn’t afford them. During the war Volkswagen made military vehicles.
Of course today Volkswagen makes fine cars that don’t run on the blood of Jews, but the idea of superimposing a villain who was fully informed by the Nazi horror on the car that came from it seems odd. Or it would seem odd if people approached commercials with their brains; instead our history is lost to us and we just coo over a cute kid in an ill-fitting helmet, forgetting the atrocities that brought the car and the character to us.
On top of that, I don’t think the commercial is particularly ‘good.’ It feels like a maudlin bit of manipulation, and there’s no honest emotion in it. Of course honest emotion is antithetical to a commercial - being emotionally honest in an ad could possibly turn off a segment of the audience. Pandering, however, and lowest common denominator feelgoodism are perfect to sell you a product - or in this case, a brand.
Now, I’m not discounting the joys of sharing Star Wars with your kids. And I’m not running down Volkswagen as a car. What I am saying is that the unthinking way that so many people accepted the pre-packaged feelgood aspect of the commercial and the way that so many people - especially web professionals and ‘cool hunter’ types swallowed the pre-packaged viral aspect of the commercial is just a reminder of how we lost the war on the crass commercialization of our culture long ago. Any time someone is calling you cynical for not liking a Super Bowl commercial you’ve entered a world that Orwell couldn’t have made up.