A plot twist in the world of advertising

Times Staff Writer

Madison Avenue meets Hollywood in “The Check Up,” a six-minute film that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Shot in a day by music video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the movie stars Kevin Connolly (HBO’s “Entourage”) as a fellow clinging desperately to his futon as he wades into his 30s, and Joe Pantoliano (“The Sopranos”) as a federal agent prodding him, not so gently, toward adulthood. The vignette wasn’t a competitor for best (very) short film, nor is it heading for local theaters. Instead, it’s part of the “All Grown Up ... Sort of” campaign promoting the Volkswagen Jetta, launched March 19 by VW’s ad agency, Arnold Worldwide.

It’s another example of the changing rules of engagement in the ad game -- in which agencies entice customers by appropriating the trappings and technology of the entertainment industry.


In the case of “The Check Up,” the mini-movie serves as the opening bit in an informational, interactive DVD featuring interviews with designers and magazine editors along with footage of the Jetta in motion. Two million copies will be inserted into this week’s Entertainment Weekly. An additional 1.5 million will be distributed at dealerships, at car shows and online.

The ad world has had to be more creative now that consumers are bombarded nonstop with commercials that they -- and their TiVos -- tune out. A few years ago Nissan distributed a short film, “The Run,” that it screened at movie theaters and distributed on DVD at trade events. BMW enlisted A-list directors such as Tony Scott and the late John Frankenheimer to produce eight short action-hero movies promoting its Z4 roadster -- inserting DVDs into issues of Vanity Fair.

The approach is expected to be more effective now that the 7 1/2 -year-old DVD format has entered adulthood.

“When this was first done three or four years ago, only 15 to 20% of American households had DVD players,” said Larry Jaffee, editor of Medialine Magazine. “Now they’re ubiquitous -- found in more than 70% of the homes. For a company marketing a high-priced ticket like a car, that ensures that it will be watched instead of discarded like those free AOL [discs].

“Using a stand-alone fiction piece also reinforces the brand,” he added. “Even if people aren’t interested in buying a Jetta, the story sticks in their mind more than a print ad or a 30-second commercial and could influence their choice down the road.”

Volkswagen considered DVDs an ideal way to reach their tech-savvy customer base -- one that has never been mainstream.

“We aren’t interested in reaching a mass audience, but a specialized one, which according to our research, has aged but still has the DNA of its youth,” said Stuart Karp, brand advertising manager for Volkswagen of America. “DVDs have given us new tools, and we’re thinking of using them again. Still, they’re not replacing our traditional media buys -- just supplementing them.”

With only 4% of the automotive marketplace, the Volkswagen is an alternative choice, “the other way to go,” Arnold executives point out. Tapping into alternative media -- and adopting an “independent film” feel -- was a natural for this audience. In terms of cost-effectiveness, the DVD is also a plus: far cheaper than glossy print brochures that must be mailed, and much easier to update.

Producers avoided making the Jetta the centerpiece of the action -- a hard-sell approach that might turn off viewers.

“The movie was designed to bring our campaign and the interactive DVD brochure together,” said Colin Jeffery, one of three writers of the film. “But the Jetta only flashes on Mike’s computer screen at the end, so we had complete creative freedom. Rather than worrying about the product, we could focus on the emotional side of the brand.”

The movie, shot by cinematographer Salvatore Totino (the upcoming “Cinderella Man,” “Any Given Sunday”), begins with a knock on a door. Flashing his Federal Commission of Adulthood badge, the agent (Pantoliano) introduces himself to Mike (Connolly). Surveying his apartment, he takes in the video games, the poster of Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, the suit thrown over the chair. When is he going to make his intentions known to his girlfriend and curtail his entertainment spending, the agent asks. And when will Mike chuck the old Jetta in the driveway in favor of a car more attuned to a mature, tax-paying adult?

Mike flips open his laptop and flashes an image of a sleek, sophisticated car in profile. Fine, the agent says, satisfied with the choice. As he leaves the premises, the computer image rotates around, zooming in on the grill of the new Jetta. “Sucker,” Mike intones into the camera.

“Name” actors lend credibility, Volkswagen’s Karp said. The agency said Connolly was selected for his likable “everyman” quality, cut by a touch of defiance. Pantoliano, who also costarred in the high-tech “The Matrix,” appealed because of his intensity, unpredictability and voice of authority, Karp said.

“We had trouble lining up Hollywood talent,” said Arnold’s David Weist, another writer on the project. “Not everyone wants to be in a commercial, even a long-play one. They had questions about how the material would be used and, unlike other actors who audition for our commercials, took awhile to respond ... the typical Hollywood thing, I’m told.”