November 2002
BY Jay Defoor
Photo Editor: Paul Moakley

When it comes to television car advertising, creativity usually takes a backseat to cheesy music, annoying voice-overs and text boldly proclaiming cashback options and APRs. It's enough to make most couch potatoes reach for their remote.

TBWA\Chiat\Day's new TV campaign for the resurrected Nissan Z looks to change that perception, with four new spots shot by some of photography's biggest names.

As part of Nissan's new "Shift" initiative, the carmaker wanted the Z campaign to avoid the clichés common to television car ads. After kicking around a few ideas, TBWA\C\D decided still photography could provide just the understated, artful concept they wanted.

"The power of the photograph is something not normally utilized on television," says creative director Chris Graves. "It's an overpowering medium. We thought this would be a good way to stand apart."

And stand apart they do. The four TV commercials and accompanying print campaigns were shot by Mary Ellen Mark, Elliott Erwitt, Neil Leifer and Michael Kenna, with Albert Watson contributing photographs for the print and outdoor campaign. The spots are all shot on black-and-white film, and the stills were edited in video to look like a slide show set to music. Graves says the creative team decided early on that black-and-white photography would best capture the menacing look of the Z, an affordably priced sports car. After that, it was just a matter of hiring the best black-and-white photographers.

Though the photographers are reluctant to disclose how much they got paid the TV usage definitely helped raise the price above a normal print campaign. But for Leifer, the money wasn't what convinced him to sign on. "The minute they approached me and told me the company I was in, I agreed to do it," says Leifer, whose personal collection includes prints by Mark and Erwitt. "For me, it was a privilege just to be included."

Mark says the thought of photographing the Z initially terrified her, but the picture at left made the final cut.

Though the Z campaign isn't the first time still photographs have been used in a TV commercial, the results are rarely this well thought or executed. Rather than asking the photographer do something they're not familiar with, TBWA\C\D matched the individual artists to their strengths.

"The approach was all about creating pictures to hang on your wall,” says Graves. "It's not necessary to have classic car photographers shooting car commercials. You can capture the essence of a car in many ways.”

The cult following that the Z has attracted over the years allowed the agency to stretch creatively. In the spots by Mark, Erwitt and Kenna, showing people's relationships to the car is more important than the car itself.

"The people who know about this car and who want this car know what it looks like," says Chris Lynch, the campaign's art director. “If you don't know what it looks like by now, you're probably not interested.”

Mark's 30-second spot best illustrates the idea behind the campaign, which subtly demands that viewers connect the dots. Simply titled “Cops”, the series of ten images shows close-up portraits of the boys in blue looking typically stern. Their expressions set up the punch line: "Let's be careful out there." Only on the final frame do you actually see the car, which is shown as a speeding blur that's sure to get a cop's attention.

"It reminded me of the good old days when I did great documentary assignments for magazines," says Mark, speaking of the shoot that took her to California, Colorado and New Jersey. "One of the subject was a traffic cop, so I had to stand in the middle of the road hoping I wouldn’t get hit," she says.

On photographing the police, Mark asks: "When else are you going to meet all those nice people without getting arrested?”

According to Graves, Leifer's ability to freeze action, as he did with Muhammad Ali's knockout of Sonny Liston, made him perfect for the job. The most arresting frame in Leifer's spot shows the car suspended in midair. Leifer says capturing the car with all four wheels off the ground was actually the easiest of all the shots, simply because he knew exactly where the decisive moment would occur. He used high-speed film shooting eight frames per second to get it just right.

"It's the kind of thing I know how to do," say Leifer. "You do have a lot of people looking over your shoulder, but they are providing you with everything you need to do a good job."

Erwitt certainly understands the need for more creativity in car advertising. "Apart from the president of the United States," he says, "there's nothing more boring than automobile ads."

To illustrate how the beauty of the Nissan Z can turn heads, Erwitt and crew scoured the streets of Manhattan and the Hamptons in search of everyday people. The shots, most of which seem to be looking out from behind the wheel, attempt to convey people's reactions to seeing a beautiful sports car. The succession of images show a bike messenger, a bus driver and joggers all straining to get a better look at the car. One classic Erwitt composition shows a driver peering into his side mirror, sizing up the approaching Z.

"A great many of the pictures turned out to be people we picked up off the street," Erwitt says. "To me, that's what makes the ads believable."

Shots of another trademark Erwitt subject –dogs- didn't make the cut. Erwitt says he had a great image of a dog looking at the car and another looking out from it, but he can understand the editors' decision. "Not too many dogs buy automobiles," he says, "that I can guarantee."

Graves says the client was thrilled with the ads and so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "We knew this car was going to be killer and we wouldn't have to apologize when it came out," Graves says. The car's cachet guaranteed that Graves and his team would be allowed to take creative chances. He says, "There's no rationale to buying a sports car. It's all about the passion."

The same can be said for the advertising.