The mega popularity of the Volkswagen Darth Vader ad is based on a story about humanity and life's obstacles, one designed to triple Volkswagen sales in the U.S. by 2018.
Created by Interpublic Group's Deutsch Inc.'s Los Angeles office, VW's "mini-Darth" spot features a pint-sized Darth Vader trying unsuccessfully to use "The Force" on various household objects until he encounters a new 2011 Passat in the driveway, which finally responds to his efforts when its engine starts. His dad, of course, has used the key fob to start the car remotely.
The Super Bowl XLV commercial for the Passat, a mid-sized four-door sedan, has been ranked by Nielsen as Super Bowl's best-liked ad and had over 25 million views on YouTube at the time of publishing.
"This is the truly defining moment for me and [the] Deutsch team," said Mike Sheldon, CEO of Deutsch LA, the West-Coast arm of Deutsch Inc.
For Sheldon and the Deutsch LA team, the mission was clear when it came to Volkswagen: sales.
"There are some agencies that like to make ads and those that like to make sales," said Sheldon. "We're the latter."
Volkswagen's goal is to triple sales in the U.S. to 800,000 cars by 2018.
"The brand was squarely positioned for a 27-year-old guy with gelled hair, somewhat to the exclusion of anybody slightly younger or older," said Sheldon. "Our job was to widen that audience."
Enter mini-Darth Vader and his struggle against a doll, a washing machine and a dog.
"Car ads cannot be about the car," said Sheldon. "The minute they [the viewer] hear 'independent rear suspension' they want to poke their eyes out."
The plan was to tap into humanity rather than sheet metal.
"We've got every element, from John Williams music to a cute six year old," he said. "The Passat is a family car, it's new this year and we have to reach those people."
Landing the Volkswagen account was a big score for Deutsch LA, which has handled the account for less than two years.
In a closely watched review in October 2009, Deutsch LA, which had recently lost the General Motors Saturn account, won Volkswagen over Omnicom's Goodby Silverstein & Partners, a big event for what was still a small company.
"Oil runs through my veins," said Sheldon, who grew up in a Detroit suburb as the son of a GM exec. "[The client] knew we knew the car business, because we care about dealers and we've had experience."
Aside from winning a big, new account, the move was celebrated at Deutsch LA because of Volkswagen's storied advertising history.
"Modern advertising was practically invented by Bill Bernbach on the Volkswagen account," said Sheldon, referring to the legendary creative responsible for some of VW's biggest ad coups like the "Think Small" and "Lemon" while at DDB, the worldwide ad agency.
"We knew we had an extremely high bar to hit, we feel that everyday," said Sheldon.
Sheldon, 51, started Deutsch LA 14 years ago, following an eight year stint at Chiat/Day, where he led many auto accounts like Nissan and Infiniti. Deutsch LA currently employs 420 people
As for hiring plans, Sheldon is tight-lipped. "This year, our goal is to put the work front and center, but we will definitely grow. We're going to continue the great work, follow up to this by trying to talk about humanity in a hip, simple and honest way," he said. "We want people with big brains, big hearts, thick skin, who are two degrees off-center."
Write to Shareen Pathak