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The Driver and the Assassin: the cinematic experience of the car ad

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Received wisdom in the information age is that attention spans are getting shorter. Advertisers try to combat this by squeezing every second of that attention for maximum value. But at the same time, we go on eight-hour binges to catch up on Narcos. The problem isn’t the attention span, it’s capturing it.

When it comes to expensive, long-lasting products like cars, the experience of the ad is more important than the information it provides - people buy new cars because of what it says about them, not because of the new headlights. This begs for a cinematic approach. Ford’s Le Fantôme, starring Mads Mikkelsen, and BMW’s The Escape, with Clive Owens, are trying to do exactly this - seduction rather than gratification.

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If done correctly, content like this can stick with a viewer for years until they are ready to make the purchase. The videos are long enough to warrant sitting down and beautiful enough to hit full-screen. Instead of placing their products in the hands of James Bond and the like, the brands have created their own impossibly suave mystery men. These videos are a foray into true content - advertising that should be good enough to be its own event.

For this kind of content to deliver a good ROI, it needs to compete with the best entertainment available in the same market. BMW’s work shows that brands can create content that rivals the best Netflix has to offer. Tight and compact, full of rising and established stars and directed by one of the better action directors around, Neill Blomkamp, it is first and foremost a narrative film. Even from the very beginning, in 2001, BMW Films understood what it takes to make content work - it has to be more than an ad. They did this by prioritising story over product, while ensuring that the audience always knows that the excitement is courtesy of BMW. Maybe you’d be as cool as The Driver if you just had his car.

Ford, on the other hand, tried to capture the magic of narrative film without committing wholeheartedly to the form. Le Fantôme feels like two pieces of work stitched together - a quirky Wes Anderson assassin flick intercut with those overhead shots of cars on windy roads you only see in traditional car commercials. This separates the car from the story - indeed, it is first seeing the car that jars with the viewers willful suspension of disbelief. Part of what works so well with The Escape is that you believe The Driver would drive a beemer. The Assassin - a man who arrives on a small boat with his vintage (BMW) motorcycle in tow - doesn’t feel like the kind to fall in love with a bright orange SUV. Be that as it may, I would still consider this a step in the right direction - with a little more faith from the brand the sequel could be amazing.

Another curious omission by Ford is the lack of supporting content. A production of that scale should always come with trailers, behind-the-scenes videos and other extras. BMW has a microsite that collects all this together, allowing fans to dig into the backstory and engage with more content, providing more opportunities for the previously mentioned seduction. BMW also teased the release with trailers and articles to generate hype, making the online premiere truly an event. People remembered the original series, and waited in fanboy anticipation for another instalment. How many other fifteen-year-old campaigns can lay claim to that kind of loyalty?

That loyalty is what advertisers should be striving for. Audiences have plenty of attention, but it has to be earned with content of this calibre. If more advertising followed this path, audiences wouldn’t automatically resort to AdBlocker, and brands could focus on giving them what they want, rather than trying to find that last square inch of free space. As one comment below The Escape states, “This ad was better than the vid I was trying to watch.” That’s what it means for brands to be content creators.

Matthew Davies is a director at REDPILL, a specialist branded video agency working with the world’s most exciting brands.