Have you noticed that there seems to be a standard template for television car adverts these days? Nobody over thirty is featured, and the airbrushed twenty somethings who do appear have apparently been kidnapped from the nearest modelling agency. They all have razor sharp cheekbones, nobody is fat, and everyone is either skipping or walking as if they’re flouncing while suffering from some sort of lower back problem. It’s the kind of thing catwalk models do, and the look is akin to a sack of potatoes falling down the stairs.
Mercifully, we’ve moved on from the ‘80s, when everyone in car television advertising land was Caucasian, but today’s studiously multi-racial lumpy walkers have a slightly androgynous look that might be described as own brand David Bowie, circa 1973. As they prance around often very ordinary cars, or are filmed inside them looking manically happy and snapping their fingers to some insufferable, bought-by-the-yard music that only middle-aged executives think is hip, the message is clear: Buy, or better still lease this glittery-yet-common consumer durable and you will suddenly become younger, vastly more attractive, and your monastic, lonely life will be transformed into one endless party with the beautiful people. This, of course, isn’t clapped out old tosh, just yet another revision of that ancient cliché, ‘sex sells.’
At the end of a blizzard of jump cuts and jerking about will be a computer-generated company ident. Think heartbeat/flamenco stamping noise/company name whispered in an irritating ‘sexy’ national accent by a voice actor whose lips are almost wrapped around their microphone.
We’ve seen this stuff before, haven’t we? Over and over again, and those bursts of cliché are enough to give me mental indigestion. These bilious thoughts have bubbled to the surface after reading that Geoffrey Palmer, the brilliant comic actor, had passed away. His bloodhound visage and precise, vocal tones were put to good use in a host of sitcoms from Butterflies to the Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, and he voiced all those clever ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ Audi 100 advertisements from the 1980s. They gently sent up the car’s Teutonic heritage while flagging up its efficiency and design aesthetic.
A decade ago I secured a telephone interview with Palmer about how the commercials were made. He was charming, funny, and quite sweary. Audi had offered him a 100, which after weeks of delay had been upgraded to a 200 (when did you last see one of those?) “because the 100 fell off a ship in Harwich.”
Palmer, a voiceover old hand, was given the contradictory directorial instruction ‘to be as quick as possible, but make it sound as if you’re going slowly,’ something he managed with deadpan precision. Not everyone appreciated his skill however. ‘We had a German neighbour, and I remember her saying, “Geoffrey, you do realise that you’re not pronouncing ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ properly,’” he said, adding after an immaculate pause. “Of course, that was the whole (expletive deleted) idea.”
The next time you see a car commercial featuring dancing plastic people, compare and contrast.