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Commercial of the Decade: Nick Drake, “Pink Moon,” and a Smart Little Volkswagen

December 28, 2009

Fade in to a moonlit river, an isolated bridge, and a carload of recent college graduates. Acoustic guitar strums, both urgent and plaintive, are joined by a husky voice, uttering lyrics that border on making rational sense but never quite get there: “Saw it written and saw it say, pink moon is on its way.” When the voice intones “pink moon,” the camera points skyward and we see from the perspective of the passengers a bright full moon, the light of which fills the clear night sky. The music and visuals evoke a feeling of quiet magic and mystery, enhanced by the hazy purpose of what we’re seeing. Is this a movie trailer, a product advertisement, or the beginning of a TV program? Next question: with something this lovely, does it matter?

The four young people pull up to their destination—a party that seems excessively boisterous by comparison to the enchanting ride that brought them there. They hesitate, glance at each other, and silently communicate their shared wish for more backroads, more moonlight, more windblown hair, and, presumably, more of the beautiful music that has continued to play throughout this quietly dramatic scene. They drive off to embrace what they have decided is more valuable in this moment. They choose the journey over the destination.

At this point, it’s still unclear what exactly we’re seeing. Finally, nearly a full minute into the piece, the famous Volkswagen logo appears against the same starry sky the moon has been filling. Volkswagen. The Cabrio. Drivers Wanted. We instantly recall that the car has been the focal point of their shared communing with the night.

You’ve probably seen the commercial embedded above. If you’re a fan of Nick Drake’s music, it’s probably because of this Cabrio ad that featured his song “Pink Moon.” Drake lingered in obscurity during his brief, three-album career and for decades after his untimely, depression-related death by overdose (and probable suicide) in 1974. In the late 1990s, he slowly began to move into the public consciousness, as Rykodisc released a new Best Of collection and more and more artists began to cite Drake as an influence. Then, the Cabrio ad and a well-nigh meteoric rise to posthumous fame.

So that’s one reason why I feel compelled to argue that the “Pink Moon” VW Cabrio ad is the Commercial of the Decade. Without it, thousands if not millions fewer people would know that Nick Drake made some of the most beautiful, haunting music of the twentieth century.

Another important Commercial of the Decade justification related to the use of music is how thoroughly this commercial upended old notions of “selling out” one’s music to corporations and ad agencies. Let’s be clear here: the corporate radio paradigm, firmly in place in 2000 when this commercial debuted, had already commodified popular music. The days when radio DJs were music obsessives who chose records they liked and could help a great but unknown band “make it big” were already long gone when we began this decade (if they ever existed in the first place). Songs on pop radio playlists were market-tested and heavily publicized to the hilt. Not art but commerce.

So adding TV cameras and a car nameplate did nothing to further commodify Nick Drake’s song. In fact, its choice for inclusion in the commercial was actually closer to that mostly mythical image of the bygone-era DJ championing music he or she liked. Somewhere along the way, some music obsessive in the creative division of Volkswagen’s advertising firm listened to “Pink Moon” and heard its potential. The rest of the VW commercial obviously sprang to life after the song choice. The public heard the song because someone championed it as a commercially and artistically sensible choice.

None has matched the success of the Volkswagen/Cabrio spot, but that’s been the model for countless commercials since then. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a half dozen critically beloved artists whose music has been used creatively and appropriately in good, well-made commercials. I can think of  many more whose music has been used rather crassly, but with corporate pop radio being such a wasteland, I still don’t begrudge them the choice to sell the song.

For me, the Nick Drake/VW ad singlehandedly reversed my thinking on that issue, because it showed me what was possible in mixing art with marketing. The ad successfully positions Nick Drake and Cabrio as the perfect choices among a certain set of thoughtful (and attractive, of course) young people. If the mission of the modern commercial is not to “sell a product” but to connect that product with a desirable lifestyle, then the Cabrio ad is a smashing success. It’s not selling a car so much as it’s selling a dream—almost literally, given the ad’s beautiful, hypnotic marriage of sound and image.

I’m not a fan of this word, but it’s fitting in this case to say that the Nick Drake/Volkswagen ad was a true “game-changer” in the worlds of advertising and music promotion. It worked on all levels and influenced numerous advertising choices made in its wake. And it’s just really pretty. How many commercials can claim that? So, for me, it’s an easy choice for Commerical of the Decade.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. T. D. permalink
    December 29, 2009 10:31 am

    Amen, brother! I’ll also throw out (arguably being a distant second) the Wilco series of VW ads following the release of Sky Blue Sky, “Walken” in particular. I think many Wilco fans saw it as a lame way to promote a record but I loved it. Something about the music really didn’t fit but it was still compelling – conceptually similar to (though far less drastic than) “Stuck In The Middle With You” from Reservoir Dogs.

  2. March 4, 2013 3:44 pm

    I know this is several years old, but I just stumbled across this article, and it’s a really well-written piece about a beautiful commercial. I believe I used to live where this ad was filmed (I think it’s West Marin, California), and the ad not only captures the elliptical beauty of the song, but also the gorgeousness of that area. Really well done piece here.

    NOTE: Just as I was about to send this, I did some research on the ad and saw that the DP for the commercial is from West Marin. So that’s got to be it.

    • Lloyd permalink
      March 5, 2013 12:23 pm

      Thanks for the comment and the kind words. That’s cool that the commercial evokes specific feelings of your former home. I find it evocative too, of course (hence the piece I wrote), but I’d like the ad even better if it also reminded me of home. Cheers!

    • Kirk permalink
      March 22, 2013 6:31 pm

      Hey Lloyd-

      I too just stumbled across your article as I could never really figure out why this ad had/has the effect on me that it has all these years. I, like many, really despise a great deal of adverts with music, (particularly in North America), as it often condescends to the viewer and feels need to spell every little detail out, thus taking away any mystery/implied interpretations.
      The understatement that this ad achieves is fantastic, and as you say evokes quiet magic and mystery is spot on. You certainly nailed it- this ad continues to stir something up in me, and I have never even bought a VW. I have, however, have had the entire Nick Drake catalogue (as short as it is!) since.
      Thanks for posting.

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