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Fly Away... For Crying out Loud, Please Fly Away

There once was a time when television let cars sell themselves. Auto manufacturers felt secure enough in their wares to sell you on, say, the "wide-track" suspension of the 1963 Pontiac or the Torque-Flite transmission of -- hold me! -- the 1958 Chrysler 300. From descriptions of engines and drivetrains sufficiently detailed to make a Tom McCahill wet his pants with delight and anticipation yet simple enough for Joe Shlobotnik to grasp, to the dry humor of Volkswagen's classic campaigns for the Beetle, the car took a usually classy center stage.

But, oh, how things have changed.

Now the car is secondary to the production. Carmakers rank right up there with movie studios and PepsiCo products as the most aggressive advertisers on television. And, like movie studios and PepsiCo products, carmakers' commercials have become more omnipresent and more annoying.

The car itself doesn't matter -- it's all presentation now. You can't even tell what the hell they're trying to sell. Are those "Imagine TV" commercials trying to hawk Mercury automobiles, or are they really promos for more shows The WB will soon inflict upon an unsuspecting populace?

As I write this, I am being severely tortured by Nissan's new campaign, the one centered around "Fly Away" by Lenny Kravitz and "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who. Good news, no doubt, for those whose automotive purchases are influenced largely by overplayed Top-40 songs and classic rock tunes that have been beaten into the ground.

You know this campaign. You have to. It's inescapable. It's everywhere. Imagine the cultural forces of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Jeff Gordon rolled up into one super-huge, super-evil cultural force and you get an idea of just how big and ever-present it is, and of just how quickly it has grown tiresome and annoying. And at the moment, only the sheer brute force of PepsiCo's equally nauseating "Star Wars" tie-ins keep it from dominating the airwaves.

Still, turn on any channel to watch anything at all, and it seems Nissan is there too. 60 Minutes? Yep, there's "Fly Away." Care to relax with an afternoon baseball game? As soon as Ozzie Guillen grounds to short to end the fifth, The Who pipes in guitar bleeps and a yowl and that damned Nissan. I'm telling you, any day now when I'm tuning in Nightly Business Report on PBS to get my daily fix of the rugged, John Forsythe-gone-to-seed handsomeness of Paul Kangas, that furshlugginer Nissan commercial's going to pop in.

I know it -- just as sure as I know anything, I know it.

And this is somehow supposed to spur my sorry 26-year-old ass to my local dealer so that I can breathlessly demand he swap my 1983 Oldsmobile for a brand new Nissan?

Dear sweet Keith Moon, save me.

Carmakers, being the essentially unlovable types they are, pull out all the stops by throwing in every advertising cliché this side of Michael Jordan. Perhaps the most egregious of these has been getting dead people to endorse your product. Mercedes-Benz -- Official Automobile of the Master Race -- was a trailblazer in this shameless commerce some time ago when it used Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" to hawk its cars. Now it has a campaign in which, through computer wizardry, animated artists from Dali to Picasso come to life and take the wheels of said cars and whiz them around to "The Blue Danube."

The intent, of course, is to get you to equate the Mercedes motorcar with great works of art. Good thing, for it doesn't at all make you think of Mercedes as the motorcar of pretentious, shameless assholes who lack imagination and originality and strip-mine cultural treasures in the name of the almighty sawbuck. What's next, using Carl Sandburg's delicate little poem "Fog" to boast about halogen headlamps?

Not to be outdone, Chevrolet -- Official Car of the Great Unwashed -- revived its "See the U.S.A." campaign against a backdrop of famous photographs of pop icons and events with Chevys magically added, thanks to our little friend, the Digit. All the cliches of the past 100 years are there: sailor boy laying one on a girl on V-E day in Times Square (with a Chevy added in the background); a brooding James Dean on a rainy street walking by a Corvette that has been conveniently placed nearby; the space shuttle lifts off with a Corvette parked right near the big liftoff clock.

Which raises a question: where was NASA's vaunted security force when that happened?

Since it seems car advertising draws out the very best in our brilliant advertising geniuses, here's a modest proposal. You want to associate your automobiles with celebrities and famous events? Fine and dandy, Skipper. You want to rip off popular music to do it? That's just grand, Bucky.

Why not add to Chevy's existing commercial a photo of Ernie Kovacs' lifeless body sprawled alongside his smashed Corvair station wagon? How about a Chrysler knock-off with Jayne Mansfield's severed head rolling alongside her capsized Imperial, set to the strains of "Last Kiss"?

Jeep wants in on it too? Fine. Put a Jeep in the background of Eddie Adams' Pulitzer-winning photo of General Loan blowing the brains out of a suspected VC spy in Saigon. Mercedes wants so badly to connect itself to history? Great! Let's see films of Adolf Hitler in a Mercedes against a backdrop of "Ride of the Valkyries."

And Lincoln could have the ultimate celebrity tie-in, thanks to an amateur photographer named Abraham Zapruder. Just imagine the structural integrity of a presidential skull being compromised to the tune of "Dead Man's Curve." Practically writes itself, don't it?

So maybe our brilliant intellectual giants at the car companies and the ad agencies can toy with those ideas. But for my part, if it takes misappropriated music and images to sell automobiles in this day and age, that ancient Oldsmobile in my driveway -- cracked windshield, disintegrating paint and all -- looks mighty sweet. And I didn't need hackneyed rock tunes or doctored photos to help me decide as much, either.


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