Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

New Prius ads say, “Enough with nature, already!”

For a company that’s positioning itself as “green,” one has to wonder why the Prius campaign’s subtext is so anti-nature.


Considering that Prius has positioned itself as a “green” vehicle, friendly to nature and a favoured son (daughter?) of the goddess Gaia, it’s puzzling that their new ads should be so antagonistic towards nature.

The new campaign, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, Toronto, features a Prius driving around while awe-struck bystanders whistle the venerable Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, “What the World Needs Now.”

Now we’ll ignore the fact that the whistling is decidedly amateurish. These people are not in the same league as Fred Lowery, the man who so beautifully whistled the Andy Griffith theme song. They’re hardly even in the same league as the guy in accounting who always whistles under his breath while waiting for the elevator. But we’ll let that pass. We’ll even let pass the fact that the first person to start whistling is a four- or five-year-old boy — hardly the typical Bacharach fan.

No, the real problem here — as is so often the case when agencies employ popular songs based solely on their titles — is that the song’s actual message is at odds with the brand’s positioning.

Several years ago, a Canadian bank created a number of TV spots designed to promote the idea that they were adapting to new demands from their older customers. “Can a bank change?” asked the ads, accompanied by different people holding up hand-made signs, an obvious reference to the Bob Dylan video, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” This was accompanied by an instrumental version of Dylan’s anthem, “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”

The intention was to promote the idea that the bank was responding to a population grown resentful toward banking policies detrimental to non-corporate clients. The Dylan tune, “The Times, They Are A’Changin’,” must have struck the creative team as an obvious way to bring the message home — especially to a Boomer audience. Of course, those Boomers actually familiar not only with the essential message of the original song, but also with its lyrics, couldn’t help feeling the spots were possibly revealing more truth than the agency had intended. The line, “You’d better start swimming, or you’ll sink like a stone,” was anything but reassuring.

In a similar fashion, the Bacharach/David song is laden with messages directly contradictory to that which we can only imagine Prius intended to convey.

It starts off admirably. “What the world needs now,” it tells us, “is love, sweet love,” and this love is “not for some, but for everyone.”

Who needs trees and rivers when you’ve got smug, self-satisfaction?

But as adamant as the song is that the world needs love, it is even more adamant about what the world does not need. For instance, “we don’t need another mountain,” it says, reasoning that “there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.” The same holds true of oceans and rivers, of which there are “enough to cross, enough to last, till the end of time.”

Among other things we can do without are more meadows, cornfields, wheat fields, sunbeams, and moonbeams.

At no point does the song indicate that we should cut back on man-made objects. There is no line proclaiming “Lord, we don’t need another skyscraper,” or, “There are factories and paper mills enough to last till the end of time.” No, the song is very specific about what we don’t need.

We don’t need more nature.

I can’t say I disagree. I’ll take a well-tended city over the myriad animal attacks, infections, insect infiltrations and other life-threatening annoyances so beloved of nature any day. But for Prius to feel the same way — well, I confess to being more than a little puzzled.

It’s a mistake that often occurs when younger advertising people try using the icons from their parents’ generation without fully understanding their full implications, something Chuck Nyren constantly points out in his Advertising to Baby Boomers blog. But part of me wonders if, in this case, it’s actually a mistake, or whether the Prius people are letting us in on their long-range plans. Consider this — the Prius ads end with the words: “The world needs more Prius.”

And if that calls for a few more factories, and a bit less nature, then so be it.

Originally published in Ad Nauseam: Online, 2009

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Ian Rankin

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