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The ten best car commercials of 2011

By Dan Carney, msnbc.com contributor

Yes, I know, this sounds like a roster of the best sushi-flavored ice creams.  The vast majority of car industry commercials are tripe, either falling in the category of my-truck-is-tougher-than-yours urination contests or bash-your-head-against-the-wall Sale-A-Brations trying to move metal for dubious “holidays” like Christmas in July.  Others try too hard, inflicting dancing hamsters on us.

But occasionally lightning strikes and we get genius.  We’ve seen it before as with this 1996 Nissan commercial, Toys.

Not everything in this year’s top ten list reaches that level, but a few of them definitely equal the spark of Toys.

10.  Cadillac, "Pioneered by Cadillac and Used by Ferrari"

We all know that Cadillac makes cushy highway barges, right?  And Ferrari is the world’s preeminent sports car builder.  Got it?  Absolutely nothing in common. But Cadillac needs to remake its image for a new generation, and it is building the slinky CTS-V Coupe to get their attention.  Turns out some Cadillac know-how also got Ferrari’s attention, as the Prancing Horse has adopted electromagnetic adjustable shock absorbers first seen on the Plodding Hearse.  Definitely makes you scratch your head.  But don’t think of taking grandma’s ’98 Deville to the track.

9.  Audi, "Luxury Prison"

When your product is not the industry standard, you make a living by knocking the king off his throne.  Audi is gaining U.S. market share hand over fist at the expense of incumbents like Mercedes-Benz and Lexus by directly targeting them in ads that make them look fusty, dull or, worst of all, common.

The Luxury Prison commercial was produced for the Super Bowl, and it paints Mercedes-Benz drivers as moldy old followers, bound to choose their car because “my father had one.”  Meanwhile the younger, hipper protagonist escapes Luxury Prison in his trendy new Audi A8.

Best of all, the stuffy traditionalists rioting in Luxury Prison are pacified by the dulcet notes of noted jazz saxophonist Kenny G, who demonstrates an unexpected sense of humor by participating in this commercial and the lengthy internet teaser which preceded it.


Honorable mention to another Audi commercial featuring former NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson.


8.  Chevrolet, "Corvette ZR1 Racing Porsche, Ferrari and BMW"          

When car companies go racing, they have to soup up their production models to levels unimaginable to the assembly line workers bolting the cars together.  Unless the race car in question is a supercharged 638 horsepower, 205-mile per hour Corvette ZR1, in which case the racing rulesmakers insist they rein it in.

As Chevrolet fights its way back from General Motors’ bankruptcy, it needs spots to convince people that it can compete with the world’s best car brands and win.  On the racetrack it can do that with one arm, and about 168 horsepower, tied behind its back, which sounds like a good start.

The flag-waving Still Building Rockets spot is another good one, reminding us that American ingenuity is alive and well.


7.  Porsche, "Engineered for Magic"

Porsche, in contrast to Chevrolet, has established its performance bona fides, but seeks to convince shoppers that its cars aren’t limited to the racetrack.  The "Engineered for Magic" spot shows the company’s famous sports cars serving in prosaic chores like driving in snow, hauling concrete from the hardware store and picking up kids from school.  Like the Cadillac commercial, it works for Porsche because it plays against type, and who doesn’t like the idea of rationalizing the purchase of a news sports car because it is practical?  You just better hope those kids don’t grow if you want to keep putting them in the back seat.


6. Fiat, "Seduction"

Fiat plays to type with this commercial for the Abarth high-performance model of the 500 minicar.  Italian performance is sexy, sultry and even seductive.  Our everyman hero is bopping along, minding his own business when he is ensnared by irresistible Italian sex appeal, which turns out to be generated by a car.  The spot is also helpful for Fiat in its attempt to reenter the U.S. market because the 500 has been struggling with an apparent “girl car” label, and the sporty Abarth and car-as-a-girl portrayal should shore up interest among male buyers.  It is certainly more powerful than the pointless Jennifer Lopez commercials for the 500, which seem more like an attempt to kickstart her career than to tout the fun little Italian runabout.

4 (tie).  Chevrolet, "Volt Gas Station 1 and 2"

The next two commercials involve a bit of corporate sniping at one another, so to avoid being caught in their crossfire or accused of favoritism, we’ll call it a tie between Nissan’s battery-electric Leaf, which uses no gas and and Chevy’s extended-range battery electric Volt, which can use some gas.  In alphabetical order, the Chevy is listed first.

Because the idea of a gas-powered electric car is confusing to most consumers, Chevy tries to explain it by having a kid pester a Volt driver who has stopped at a gas station to answer nature’s call, not OPEC’s.  See, this electric car can use gas, but only if your need too, after running low on electrons, so that, well, watch the spot’s explanation.


4 (tie).  Nissan, "Gas Powered Everything"

There is a disturbing dystopian edge to this commercial, but it certainly grabs your attention.  In an effort to shoot down the idea that the Volt’s ability to burn gas is an advantage, "Gas Powered Everything" imagines a world in which, well, everything, is gas powered.

From the tiny screaming two-stroke-powered iPods to the industrial chug of the tractor motor in the copier, this world is grease-smeared and polluted, illustrating the expected benefits of shiny, happy electric power.

The pump of the gas pedal and twist of the key is familiar to anyone who has ever driven a gas-powered car, especially one old enough to have a carburetor.  The exposed valvetrain of the antique engine powering the coffee maker lends a real steampunk aesthetic for appreciative gearheads.  Calling it “darkly memorable,” AdWeek magazine named it the ninth-best commercial of 2011.

3. Volkswagen, "Vamanos"

It is like a set-up for a Johnny Carson joke on the pre-Leno Tonight Show.  “My Passat TDI can go so far on a tank of gas.”  “How far can it go?” It turns out, according to this commercial, that after 13 hours and nearly 800 miles in the saddle listening to a Learn to Speak Spanish CD, two white-bread buddies on a road trip can emerge from the Passat at a gas station arguing in Spanish.  That’s how far it can go on a tank of gas.  Er, diesel.

2. Chrysler, "Born of Fire"

But for Volkswagen’s tour de force, Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” paean to the motor city featuring the real Slim Shady/Eminem/Marshall Mathers and the Selected of God gospel choir would have stolen the show in the Super Bowl commercial sweepstakes.  As it is, it dominated the “Best Drama” category, illustrating the real people who still live in Detroit and who remain dedicated to the city’s success even while coastal elites have long since written off Motown, its residents and their products.  Edmunds.com says that search traffic for Chrysler jumped 328 percent after the spot and AdWeek named it the third-best commercial of 2011. 

The Chrysler-sponsored Selected of God video of their version of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is even more musically compelling.           

1. Volkswagen, "The Force"

Sometimes a baseball slugger hits a pitch so perfectly that he knows from the feel of the bat, before the ball has even gone anywhere, that he has just crushed a home run to the upper deck.  That’s how VW’s ad agency must have felt when they finished “The Force.”  The Super Bowl commercial for the Passat family sedan features a deluded kid in a Darth Vader costume who is desperate to bend objects in his world to his significant will.  After an unsuccessful day, the kid is dumbstruck by his abrupt success bewitching his dad’s car, courtesy of the remote start function on the car’s key fob.  John Williams’ “Imperial March” score has never been more powerful.   It has more than 46 million viewings on YouTube, and a “making of” video with outtakes has another four million.  Plus that whole Super Bowl thing.  AdWeek named this their top commercial of the year, saying “Few ads in history have been as charming, as clever, as perfectly paced or as well loved as this.”