Have you seen the commercials for the new BMW commercials? The automaker has commissioned a series of five five- to six-minute films from world-renowned directors John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Guy Ritchie and Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu (with linking pieces directed by Ben Younger). The minimovies have been debuting every few weeks on a special website, www.bmwfilms.com. Each piece is a stand-alone narrative about a hired driver (played by Croupier star Clive Owen) who always seems to end up getting chased in his BMW. To get the word out about the promotion, BMW has been running teaser trailers in movie theaters and on TV, essentially advertising their advertisements.
As for the films themselves, they're little more than extended chase scenes. Each of the three that have been made available so far is heavy on style and action and light on meaning, with the possible exception of Wong Kar-Wai's moody, more psychological short (scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, who provided the Hong Kong director with voice-over narration that could've come directly from Wong's Chungking Express). The BMW films are fairly cool but mostly shallow; if you ever wanted to know what an Ang Lee car commercial might look like, this series seems designed to satisfy that curiosity. Whether that curiosity is worth having is another question.
There are other questions, too, such as: How concerned should cinephiles and trendspotters be about this blatant co-option of five major filmmakers? Does it somehow diminish the artistic achievements of a great director if he or she is willing to forgo depth and meaning in favor of making a car look cool? Or are all people who work in a mass media inherently corrupt, required to spend at least part of their energy on selling, even if what they're selling is an emotion or an idea? And what of filmmakers who got their start making commercials—David Fincher, Ridley Scott—and have gone on to make estimable films? Are the skills of pitching and beguiling really all that different?
Those questions may be too loaded to answer, but they do speak to the trickiness of the whole artist vs. salesman dilemma. It's a more complicated issue than some think. Too many pundits are quick to react to any hint of commercialism in art or life, and they lose perspective. Critics howled at the omnipresence of Doritos, Mountain Dew and Pontiac Aztecs on the most recent edition of Survivor, but isn't Survivor essentially a game show? Shouldn't we be equally up in arms about the heavy promotion of Hoover vacuum cleaners on The Price Is Right? When major-league baseball teams introduced rotating billboards behind home plate, sportswriters clucked their tongues over the further degradation of the sport while conveniently ignoring the advertising placards that have been nailed to outfield walls since before there was a World Series.
The most common gripes from the guardians of public taste concern the increasing intrusion of product placement into feature films. Ever since E.T.'s love of Reese's Pieces sent the second-tier candy's sales into orbit, movie studios and corporations have been looking for ways to line each other's pockets via the strategic positioning of Pepsi products (or what have you) in the background of action scenes—or, in the case of Twister's jury-rigged tornado sensors, right into the thick of the plot. Filmgoers have become so used to the practice that it's been mocked in hip comedies from Wayne's World to Josie & the Pussycats.
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But even when filmmakers are making fun of corporate sponsorship, they run the risk of being criticized for disingenuity. Certainly Josie was lambasted for not being savage enough about the ad-saturated universe in which its satire was rooted, which just goes to show how hard it is to please some people. Josie was set in the world of pop music and MTV; were the filmmakers supposed to ignore the corporate logo-branding that's an integral part of that world, or were they just supposed to use made-up brands (and thereby make their satire even softer)? Some complained last year about Cast Away's use of Federal Express as a major feature of the plot. But wouldn't it have been more distracting if the film had used a fake shipping service that would've had the audience guessing as to which company was being ghosted? Is it possible to put any real-world product in a film without being labeled a sellout?
It's not that the omnipresence of advertising isn't a nuisance; it's just that it isn't a new nuisance. We've been enduring commercials for centuries on our way to the entertainment or information that we really want. And when cultural critics begin sounding alarms at every instance of cross-pollination between ads and content, it reduces the attention that should be paid to the examples that are genuinely alarming.
It's not the billboards at sporting events that should be excoriated. It's the heavy advertising by tobacco manufacturers and alcohol companies that deserves a closer look—likewise the wholesale purchase of college athletics by shoe companies that employ child labor. It's not so much the regional play-by-play announcers who give us the "Delta starting lineup," it's ESPN anchor Dan Patrick appearing in beer ads with athletes (and thereby calling his objectivity as a reporter into question). It's the mergers of media companies that cause one to wonder whether the real news can survive the filters of corporate ownership. It's the way that characters who've never smoked before in movies and TV shows comically grab a cigarette to "calm their nerves" and somehow manage to inhale without choking or vomiting. It's how a film like Pearl Harbor garners the cooperation of the military by promising to tell a story that's essentially a $145 million recruitment poster. It's the increasing marginalization of women in TV commercials, as The Man Show generation of ad execs conceives "funny" spots about schlubby men unapologetically enjoying their arrested adolescence; and it's the models of sexuality being put forth by MTV-created, baby-doll heroines like Britney Spears.
Are the new BMW ads—a manufactured media event that ultimately is little more than shillery—yet another step down a slippery slope? Not really because they are almost exactly what they say they are: cool promotions for a classy automobile. Even the commercials for the commercials are merely a silly case of the endless reflectivity in the Wonderland of marketing and can therefore be dismissed with a chuckle. We should have learned to handle commercials by now—it's messages we need to watch out for.