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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Lynch’s Sur­re­al Com­mer­cials

Fellini’s Fan­tas­tic TV Com­mer­cials

Ing­mar Bergman’s Soap Com­mer­cials Wash Away the Exis­ten­tial Despair

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