Watch Ridley Scott’s Controversial Nissan Sports Car Ad That Aired Only Once, During the Super Bowl (1990)

Every com­mer­cial is a fan­ta­sy, but car com­mer­cials are more fan­tas­ti­cal than most. Just look at the set­tings, with their roads, whether remote or urban, com­plete­ly emp­ty of not just oth­er cars but obsta­cles of any kind: stop signs, street-crossers, speed traps. This leaves the hero­ic every­man behind the wheel free to take on the straight­aways and curves alike just as he sees fit. But what the stan­dard car com­mer­cial offers in dri­ver wish ful­fill­ment, it lacks in dra­ma: how to tell a sto­ry, after all, about a fea­ture­less char­ac­ter who faces no obsta­cles, sub­ject to no desires beyond those for com­fort and speed? Com­mis­sioned to direct a com­mer­cial for Nis­san’s 300ZX Tur­bo, Rid­ley Scott found a way.

“I’m in a Tur­bo Z,” says the nar­ra­tor of the result­ing spot “Tur­bo Dream,” first broad­cast dur­ing Super Bowl XXIV in 1990. “These guys are after me, but they can’t catch me.” These mys­te­ri­ous pur­suers first chase him on motor­cy­cles, then in an F1 race car, and then in an exper­i­men­tal-look­ing jet. (We’re a long way indeed from Hov­is bread.)

But “just as they’re about to catch me, the twin tur­bos kick in.” Those twin tur­bocharg­ers con­sti­tute only one of the cor­nu­copia of fea­tures avail­able for the 300ZX, then the lat­est mod­el of Nis­san’s “Z‑cars,” a series acclaimed for its com­bi­na­tion of sports-car per­for­mance, lux­u­ry-car fea­tures, and high tech­nol­o­gy. The lin­eage goes all the way back to 1969, when the com­pa­ny intro­duced its Japan­ese Fair­la­dy Z in the U.S. as the 240Z.

For most of the 1960s, “Japan­ese sports car” would have sound­ed like a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. But by the 1990s many once-loy­al Amer­i­can dri­vers had been enticed to defect, not least by the promise of the Z‑car. Tak­en by sur­prise, the colos­sal U.S. auto indus­try did not react char­i­ta­bly to its for­eign com­peti­tors, and the 1980s wave of eco­nom­ic anti-Japan­ese sen­ti­ment swept Amer­i­ca. Hol­ly­wood wast­ed no time cap­i­tal­iz­ing on these feel­ings: count­less action movies began fea­tur­ing cor­po­rate-raid­ing Japan­ese vil­lains, and one of the least shod­dy among them was Black Rain — direct­ed by a cer­tain Rid­ley Scott, who in Blade Run­ner had already real­ized one vision of a thor­ough­ly Japan­i­fied Amer­i­ca.

Black Rain had come out just four months before the broad­cast of “Tur­bo Dream,” and any­one who’d seen the film would sure­ly be remind­ed of its open­ing motor­cy­cle race. The spot did draw a back­lash, but the anger had noth­ing to do with Japan: “The com­mer­cial was protest­ed by groups like the Insur­ance Insti­tute for High­way Safe­ty, the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics, the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Gov­er­nors’ High­way Safe­ty Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and oth­ers,” writes Jalop­nik’s Jason Torchin­sky. “The issue was that the ad was thought to glo­ri­fy speed­ing,” and the com­mer­cial nev­er aired again. The 300ZX itself would go on for a few more years, until the Amer­i­can SUV trend and the ris­ing yen-to-dol­lar ratio tem­porar­i­ly retired it in 1997. When they bring the new­ly unveiled Z Pro­to to mar­ket, Nis­san could do worse than enlist­ing Scott to come up with anoth­er tur­bocharged fan­ta­sy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Rid­ley Scott’s 1973 Bread Commercial—Voted England’s Favorite Adver­tise­ment of All Time

Wes Anderson’s New Com­mer­cials Sell the Hyundai Azera

Film­mak­er Cre­ates a Lux­u­ry-Style Car Com­mer­cial to Sell a 21-Year-Old Used Hon­da Accord

Cars: Past, Present & Future (A Free Course from Stan­ford)

Bob Dylan’s Con­tro­ver­sial 2004 Victoria’s Secret Ad: His First & Last Appear­ance in a Com­mer­cial

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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