Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Acura: The Elegance of Ugliness

Luxury car ads have made me a little bit crazy for years. Mainly this is because, as I see it, they have an ugly tendency of pandering to the moneyed egos of a certain class of people who are entirely devoid of empathy. In recent weeks I’ve started to think that in addition to courting those particular consumers, they’re also deliberately pissing off people like me (whose egos lack the financial resources necessary to smother their basic humanity). What else could explain this shamelessly irritating ad campaign?

“Aggression in its most elegant form.”

At first it doesn't seem so bad. There's an Acura juxtaposed with a boxing glove. And it's not just any old mitt, but rather a finely pedigreed—probably vintage—glove of brown leather: an object evoking the era of proper gentlemen, refined but physically adept, who—when not on safari or exploring the Amazon—would likely be found sipping cognac while surrounded by leather-bound books, old maps and astrolabes. And that glove's not made of just any old leather; it's some sort of exotic, textured hide, that maybe once had feathers or scales on it. It could have come from an ostrich, or even a gryphon or a basilisk!

For the truly refined individual, only the integument of an endangered/fictional animal will do.

Regardless of whatever fanciful creature gave its skin to allow proper gents to pummel the daylights out of one another without bruising their own well-moisturized knuckles, there's an analogy at work here: like the boxing glove, the car is, aesthetically speaking, all "fancy-pants," but metaphorically it's meant for pounding people into the dirt. Mind you, the Acura people, or their lawyers anyway, would say it's not intended to intimate any kind of violence, but merely the power and precision of a skilled athlete (in this case a particular sort of pugilist, who happens to appreciate a well-crafted clobbering-gauntlet).

Personally I find it hard to believe that this ad was not intended to exude at least a subtext of violent domination; however, Acura's campaign features other ads which might lend credence to the athletic artistry interpretation. These other ads can be seen on TV—I just started with the magazine ad because it was easier to fit onto my scanner. Anyway, having since mastered the art of cutting and pasting a line of HTML, here's one of those TV spots:

That's the athlete Calvin Johnson. His refined aggression is directed into the bone-crushing sport of football. Well, maybe that's not helping the case. Let's try another one:

Now, that is World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist skier Ashleigh McIvor. And that's a commercial with a different angle—you'll notice that when a luxury car ad omits masculine power, it creates a vacuum that can be filled only with female sexuality. But no matter: the point is Ashleigh is a skilled athlete in the non-contact solo sport of ski-cross, where being aggressive means "attacking" the corners and making skilled calculations at speeds rivaling that of, say, a luxury car.

So there you have it. If the solo cello music wasn't enough to convince you, the association of an attractive, female practitioner of an aggressive yet non-violent sport should surely be persuasion enough that Acura intends only benevolent connotations in these commercials, right? There's only one problem. No matter how positive and benign a person taking part in one of these ads may be, once you put the word "aggression" in the context of cars, you are talking about road rage. You are talking about the behavior of people who are, as the kids say, "A-holes."

Ultimately Acura is peddling "aggression," not "being aggressive in an artful way." They can dress the concept up nicely and call it "elegant," but really it comes down to the appeal of revving a big engine—a display of the kind of power that is the result of having an expensive car and having a foot, which is not the same as the power or aggressive instinct that comes from spending years of your life developing a skill.

The advertising goal here is to appeal to base desires while convincing the target market that they are superior to everyone else who is motivated by those same desires. All the common rabble are power hungry and arrogant. But this—this is poised arrogance—so you can feel good about being a solipsistic asshole. Sorry, I meant "A-hole"—I'm trying to keep things elegant.