In this installment of All-Nighter, Robin dissects the TDI Clean Diesel “Mom” ad from Volkswagen and uncovers some of its subtexts.
Volkswagen has a history of catchy, provocative ads—from the Think Small ads of the 1960s (which changed the advertising landscape and redefined the relationship between art director and copywriter) to the Cabrio “Milky Way” commercial from 1999 (which featured Nick Drake’s song “Pink Moon,” boosted VW’s sales, and sent the 27-year-old song to #5 on Amazon) to the 2011 Darth Vader Super Bowl Commercial. Whether or not they always sold more Volkswagens (or whether they actually sold more Nick Drake CDs) they have always managed to make a memorable impression.
The TDI Clean Diesel “Mom” ad grips you within about four seconds, even with the sound off. For an era of silent video and five-second preroll skip, this is noteworthy, especially for a video in which the first 26 seconds occur in slow motion.
The footage may be slow, but there are three shots just in those first four seconds: We have a shot showing just the boys’ legs, then the wider shot with the snack shelves further establishing the scene. But it’s the third cut, coming right in on the lead boy’s wide-open mouth, that’s the clincher, jabbing us with a sense of the boys’ wildness and setting us up for the debauchery soon to come.
That slow motion video is an appeal to rubberneckers. Because time has slowed, we feel we’re witnessing a disaster in the making. It’s impossible not to gawk. By the time we get to the kid drinking out of the slushy machine, we’ve passed the five-second mark and there’s no turning back.
Let’s turn on the sound. Over the boys’ shenanigans we hear “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys” by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. We haven’t even seen a mom yet (which is kind of the point) but we’re already thinking about her. “Don’t let ’em pick guitars and drive them old trucks.” (Remember those old trucks, because they will be important later.)
Anyway, we’re hearing the word “mama,” and we’re watching these kids trash this gas station, and we may be thinking: Where is Mom? And what kind of mother lets her children behave this way? We’re playing into a classic case of “mother blame.” In Freudian terms, “Unresolved son–father competition for the psycho-sexual possession of the mother might result in a phallic stage fixation that leads to the boy becoming an aggressive, over-ambitious, and vain man.”
Speaking of phallic stage fixation, it may strike one that there’s a whole lot of spurting and oozing going on in these early scenes: the slushy machine, the stream of soda foam, and the river of mustard may remind us of Freud’s view of male potency from Civilization and Its Discontents: “The legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upward. Putting out the fire by micturating – a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back – was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency.”
In the stunned expression of the gas station employee at the 21-second mark, we see the face of civilized man pall at the excesses of his primitive-stage brethren. And in case you wondered whether we were reading too much into the phallic thing, check out the giant-pixie-stick swords that carve up the chips in the following shot.
But this is really all just a set up for the cut at the 26-second point. Now the music drops way down, the footage resumes real-time speed and we cut to an exterior shot, at the fuel pump, in which the boys’ mother stands, phallically tethered to her enormous gas-guzzler by the fuel nozzle. “Boys?” she says, just now missing them. Other than the announcer’s voiceover at the end, it’s the only dialogue in the ad.
We can (just barely) hear the twang of the song continuing under the sound of her voice. The quietness of the music is echoed by the quietness of the car that zooms past in the background of the shot (it’s a Passat TDI Clean Diesel, if you were wondering).
We cut to the interior of that passing Volkswagen. Now the Jennings/Nelson song comes to the fore again. We can imagine a version of this ad in which classical music plays in the Volkswagen; while that would emphasize the calm and quiet of the car, it would draw extra attention to its European origins. The whole point of the TDI Clean Diesel campaign is that diesel is no longer an exotic choice in an automobile. So we have the same song in a different context.
Three boys and a mother are in this car, but it is 180 degrees from the atmosphere of the gas station. They are quiet, still, and buckled in.
The announcer: “Stop less. Go more. The Passat TDI Clean Diesel with up to 814 miles per tank.” (In case you were wondering, that would get you all the way from Indianapolis to Cozad, Nebraska.) The overt message of the ad is that if you’re not stopping for gas, your kids aren’t getting in trouble. They’re buckled in where you can find them.
But this ad is doing more beneath the surface. Remember that line about the trucks? “Don’t let ’em pick gi-tars and drive them old trucks.” That line, the late seventies vibe of the country song, even the hat on the gas station employee—they all conjure the spirit of the late seventies trucking movies: Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, or High Ballin’. What were all those old semi trucks running on? Diesel.
So the contrast in the ad is not just between cars that have to stop and cars that don’t, but between the noisy, dirty, old “working-class” diesels of the past and the clean, quiet, sleek “upwardly mobile” diesels that Volkswagen is selling. If you doubt that VW is concerned about diesel’s reputation, see any of their series of “Diesel Old Wives Tales” videos. What are myths numbers 2, 4, and 6 about diesels? That they are loud, stinky, and dirty.
Not only are the Clean Diesel Volkswagens clean, quiet, and not as smelly as you would think, they also aren’t as wasteful of our precious fossil fuel resources (a waste exemplified, in the earlier shots, by our trio of fluid-spurting, young cow-punks). If you’re the kind of person who just wants to make a mess and leave it for someone else to clean up, get a gas-guzzler. If you’re the kind of person who wants to use resources responsibly and teach your children to do the same, buy a Passat TDI. Or so the ad would like for us to think and feel.
And we can all love Waylon & Willie. That much unites us.