VW does the robot(o) for Super Bowl spot

Who: Volkswagen Canada, with Type1/Taxi for strategy and creative; Radke Films for production (Sean Meehan directing); Rooster, Fort York, Alter Ego and Grayson Music for post-production; Touché for media.

What: “Electric Feels Good,” a campaign promoting the automaker’s new EV ID.Buzz, an all-electric “reimagining” of its beloved Microbus.

When & Where: The 45-second spot will debut during Sunday’s Super Bowl telecast. While VW has made some memorable appearances in the U.S. Super Bowl, this is its first appearance in the Canadian broadcast. Additional elements including digital, social, and out-of-home are being introduced in the coming weeks.

Why: Like every other major auto company, Volkswagen is moving aggressively into the EV space, with the ID.Buzz set to debut in Canada next year. But while so much EV marketing tends to position them as machines from the future and/or adopt an earnest tone about their drivers doing their part for the planet, VW wanted to lean into its inherent playfulness.

“Volkswagen’s cars in general have always been fun, [but] where’s the fun in going electric if you’re not going to enjoy it?” said Taxi’s group creative director, Allen Kwong. “The very first time you see the ID.Buzz, you can’t help but smile. It has this really interesting retro-modern thing, and brings back all these memories. It’s infectiously happy and that was the genesis of the campaign.”

How: Retro music is currently having a moment thanks to the buzz around songs like Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” in Stranger Things and, more recently, Linda Rondstadt’s “Long, Long Time” in The Last of Us. That growing appreciation for music from the ’80s was the jumping off point for Type1/Taxi’s creative team.

Somewhere during the creative process, the idea of referencing a popular Volkswagen commercial—a 1999 spot featuring future Arrested Development and Veep star Tony Hale—took hold. That spot showed Hale sitting in a VW Golf in a parking lot, awkwardly moving his arms and head and mouthing words. The payoff comes when his friend opens the car door to reveal the Styx song “Mr. Roboto” loudly playing over the car’s “eight-speaker stereo cassette system.”

“What made it so fun is the feeling that you would have had in that car at that time, and [that] was very similar to the way we felt when we first sat in the ID.Buzz,” said Kwong. “It’s that feeling of hanging out with a group of friends and having what we’re calling ‘all-electric fun.'”

Like that spot, “Mr. Roboto” is central to the new campaign, which opens on a man paying for a snack inside a gas-station store. “Gas?” the clerk asks, to which the man silently shakes his head. As he makes his way back to his car, he gently whistles a song fragment and silently makes a series of robotic, herky-jerky movements—as do his travelling companions inside the car. When the ID.Buzz’s side door opens, the song comes pouring out of the vehicle.

What is the deal with that song?!? “Mr. Roboto” was released as the first single from Styx’s much-reviled 1983 album “Kilroy Was Here”—which has been described as a “jumping the shark” album for what at the time was one of America’s biggest bands, coming off four consecutive multi-platinum albums.

“Mr. Roboto,” in particular, was a target of fans’ ire. “What that song did is it killed a whole lot of people’s interest in our music,” said guitarist James “JY” Young in a 2019 interview. But “Mr. Roboto” has taken on new life since then, used and/or referenced in numerous TV shows and movies, including The Simpsons (of course), King of Queens;  Arrested Development; and Fun With Dick and Jane.

“There’s something about that song that’s just classic and timeless,” said Kwong. “We’ve heard it too many times to count in thinking about it for the spot, filming it, editing it, and literally every single time it comes on, people who’ve heard it probably hundreds of times over the past several months still hum along and sing it. It’s so catchy and happy.” The song also performed well in testing, said Kwong, producing all of the emotions VW was hoping to elicit.

 And we quote: “Volkswagen has always been The People’s Car. And as we help lead the transition to electric mobility, we wanted to bring VW’s spirit of joy and optimism to a conversation that often feels too scary or too activist. This is pure VW fun, backed by some pretty amazing technology.” — Lynne Piette, director of marketing, Volkswagen Canada

Chris Powell