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Inside car advertising’s celebrity arms race, from Kieran Culkin for VW to Brie Larson for Nissan

Why the biggest auto brands are enlisting familiar and famous faces.

Inside car advertising’s celebrity arms race, from Kieran Culkin for VW to Brie Larson for Nissan

It all starts with Paul Giamatti wondering why Kieran Culkin needs to buy a solid gold jet ski.

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Of course this isn’t real life. Giamatti is playing a celebrity accountant to Culkin’s extravagant and spoiled character, who strikes an eerily familiar tone to his acclaimed spoiled brat character, Roman Roy of HBO’s Succession. Even as an accountant, this is The Full Giamatti: exasperated, confused, tired yet utterly mesmerizing as he questions Culkin’s prospective purchases of a tiger or a waterfall. But he brightens up when his client says that he just bought a new VW Atlas Cross Sport.

Created by agency Johannes Leonardo, VW’s newest ads are a three-part story arc starring the two actors. The first spot was released last week, the second today, and the third will launch next Monday, March 23. It’s part of a broader “Excessive Where It Matters” campaign for the VW brand that its agency says comes from the notion that society has become obsessed with an insatiable need for more.

Lightly mocking the lives and indulgences of the rich and famous, using . . . um, the skills of two rich and famous faces.

“In order to push against this culture of excess, we thought going the celebrity route is actually very powerful because that’s the celebrity lifestyle, buying tigers and tigers and waterfalls and crazy stuff,” says Johannes Leonardo cofounder Jan Jacobs. “People look to celebrities as the way to live, so we thought that’d be really strong.”

Jacobs makes a point of saying that this is about using top actors to tell a story rather than merely hiring a famous spokesperson. “I don’t think this is pure celebrity work in that sense, because it’s not like getting Matthew McConaughey for Lincoln or whatever,” he says.

McConaughey, of course, hit the zeitgeist thanks to his special brand of finger-rollin’ philosophy back in 2015.

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That campaign also now feels like the spiritual start of our current wave of automotive A-list marketers.

The frequency of the celebrity car shill has skyrocketed in the last two months alone. The Super Bowl alone saw Bill Murray pitch for Jeep, Maisie Williams for Audi, Colbie Smulders for Toyota, John Legend and Chrissy Tiegen for Genesis, and Rachel Dratch, Chris Evans, and John Krasinsky for Hyundai.

This month it’s VW’s new story, plus Nissan has launched a new Sentra campaign with Brie Larson.

Welcome to car advertising’s new celebrity arms race.

The three types of celebrity car spots

There are three main categories of celebrity car ads. First is the Paycheck One-Off, the type so often employed for the Super Bowl, when you can’t remember if you actually saw Maisie Williams singing the song from Frozen for Audi or if it was just a hot wings-induced fever dream.

Then there’s the Spokesperson—the type that McConaughey and Lincoln perfected. These are tough to pull off with A-listers, primarily because as good as advertising can be, it won’t ever be so good to get people to believe that Tiger Woods drives a Buick. Back in 2015, LeBron James actually made a trio of spots with the very purpose of dousing any doubts.

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Finally, we have the Limited Edition. This is the category that VW’s new campaign falls into, where a brand utilizes a celebrity for a few appearances—enough to get some attention but not enough to get stale. This can include single ads, but marketers have to be careful it avoids the random Super Bowl look and actually makes sense for the brand.

“It’s important to cast wisely and with purpose,” says Barney Goldberg, executive creative director at Innocean USA, the agency responsible for both Legend’s and Tiegen’s Genesis ad and the Boston celeb-soaked “Smaht Pahk” ad for Hyundai. “Celebrities should be used to take the creative to the next level conceptually. People can easily sniff out brands that use celebrities for its own sake. Super Bowl ads are often the greatest offenders. Some commercials come off like a random assortment of out-of-work stars who are open to an easy payday. And you have to take care in choosing a star who doesn’t come with their own baggage that either detracts from the brand or repels people away from it.”

How Nissan met Brie

When Nissan was looking for the right face to embody its idea of refusing to compromise around the Sentra, its team speculated on who could pull off the kind of confident pep talk they were looking for.

Brie Larson immediately came to mind.

“When you think about her and her work, how she’s advanced in her career, she certainly embodies the idea of no compromise,” says Nissan VP of marketing Allyson Witherspoon. “She’s thrived in a male-dominated industry, and she’s got an unwavering spirit, so we thought she embodied the right qualities for this campaign.”

As to why Nissan needed a celebrity at all, Williamson says, “It’s so difficult to get your message across in this attention-starved economy. We need to have very strong messages that can break through quickly, and the use of celebrity increases that potential. Because consumers are bombarded with so many commercial messages, if they see someone the recognize, it generally has a higher potential that they’ll take notice of it. In a perfect world, an idea should be strong enough to still work without the celebrity.”

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Innocean’s Goldberg agrees. “It’s never been harder to break through the clutter, especially with the fragmentation of consumers’ viewing habits,” he says. “Whether they’re viewing content on their phones, laptops, or TVs, the strategy should be the same: give them something worthwhile to watch. It has to entertain, inform, elicit emotion, or persuade. And in the best cases, all the above.”

The VW work with Giamatti and Culkin is a departure of sorts, getting two beloved character actors to do their thing in an actual story for the brand. Johannes Leonardo’s Jacobs thinks that this helps differentiate it from typical celebrity car work. “We weren’t thinking, ‘Let’s get some celebrities for these spots,'” says Jacobs. “It was more about let’s get some great actors to tell a story.”

It’s that goal of differentiation that VW hopes will help the work get our collective attention, a task that’s become increasingly difficult and the reason for all the famous faces.

For the celebs, though, it’s another pay day that puts them one step closer to getting that golden jet ski.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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