Selling Cool: Lou Reed’s Classic Honda Scooter Commercial, 1984

In the early 1980s the Honda Motor Company was trying to get people to think of its new Honda Elite scooters as a cool way of getting around. To that end, the company enlisted a series of celebrities, including Miles Davis, Grace Jones and Devo, to appear in its ad campaign. The most notable piece in the campaign, by far, was a one-minute TV commercial in 1984 starring former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed.

The film was shot in what was then a very rough-and-tumble Lower East Side of Manhattan. Director Steve Horn, hired by the Portland, Oregon-based agency Wieden & Kennedy, underexposed and overdeveloped the film to give it a grainy, documentary appearance. Editor Lawrence Bridges, well-known for his work on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, was hired to piece it all together.

Bridges found the task of setting the images to Reed’s classic 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” extremely daunting. The idea of using that song in a commercial seemed like a sacrilege. “The generation being advertised to at that point was probably the most cynical and suspicious toward the medium to date,” writes Bridges at Vimeo, “and, moreover, I had this monumental piece of music that I had to honor. For me, the answer was to make it into an ‘underground’ film.”

Bridges used techniques he had learned from French New Wave films and that he had experimented with in MTV videos. “I got to work and used the junk cuts,” says Bridges, “including flash frames and run outs and whip pans that would normally end up being left on the floor for an assistant to clean up. I did all the things I’d done in music videos, like taking a shot and dividing it randomly in jump cuts, and all other manner of post-production techniques we used in music videos when we had less footage than the length of the actual video.”

When it was finished, Bridges and his colleagues arranged a meeting with a marketing manager from Honda. It was a nerve-racking encounter.  “The client was a very shrewd, practical person and I knew that he was averse to conspicuously daring creative work,” says Bridges. “This gritty, almost avant-garde spot, set in pre-gentrified Lower Manhattan with every art film trope you could imagine might have put considerable demands on his charm.” Instead, Bridges recalls, when the commercial was finished playing the man from Honda broke the tension by saying, “We need to be THAT scooter company.”

The spot made a huge splash on Madison Avenue. Its influence could be seen all over the next generation of commercials. But it didn’t sell many scooters. “For all its impact on the advertising industry,” writes Randall Rothenberg in Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign, “the Lou Reed commercial did little for Honda. Young Americans had little interest in scooters, no matter how hip they were made out to be.”

NOTE: To see some of the earlier scooter ads created for Honda by the Los Angeles-based Dailey & Associates, you can follow these links: DevoMiles DavisGrace Jones and Adam Ant.

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