In the 2011 HBO drama Too Big to Fail, Paul Giamatti played Ben Bernanke, chair of the Federal Reserve. While the world economy was crumbling, Bernanke was portrayed as a steady, reasonable presence in the face of chaos.
The restraint in Giamatti’s performance was a slight departure for the lauded character actor, who oozes a bigger personality on the screen in the likes of Private Parts, American Splendor, Sideways and Cinderella Man.
In a new campaign launching VW’s Atlas Cross Sport SUV, Giamatti manages to play it calm, but tense, as a celebrity accountant for Kieran Culkin, who likes to buy a lot of unnecessary things.
The launch spot from Johannes Leonardo for the vehicle’s “Excessive Where It Matters” campaign paints Giamatti as a flustered foil to Culkin’s excess. Throughout the ad, Giamatti navigates some questionable financial choices by Culkin and his other famous clients—including the purchase of a tiger.
Yet, when Culkin informs his accountant that he purchased the VW, Giamatti strikes a pleasantly surprised tone—until he finds out where the actor is valeting the SUV.
The buddy premise is nothing new, but this first ad in a series is a compelling departure from typical advertising in the category. Giamatti could have played his role big but instead tempers his frustration and keeps it from fully boiling over. In all, the pairing of the two actors creates a likable narrative that will continue to reveal itself throughout the month.
According to Jan Jacobs, co-founder and CCO of Johannes Leonardo, the point of the ad and broader campaign was not to have the stars overrun the premise.
“We didn’t want to create a spokesperson for the brand,” he said. “This is a story to show how someone essentially turns against excess and makes a sensible purchase.”
“Excess in itself isn’t wrong, but excess for the sake of showing off is,” added Saad Chehab, senior vice president of Volkswagen brand marketing. “Americans shouldn’t have to overextend themselves to drive a quality vehicle that garners celebrity style, attention and respect.”
In watching the ad, it may be easy to forget how far the brand and, by extension, its advertising has come in a relatively short period. Johannes Leonardo, Adweek’s 2019 Breakthrough Agency of the Year, took on the troubled automaker on the heels of a massive emissions scandal.
The first campaign from the agency June last year didn’t shy away from VW’s problematic past, touting the brand’s commitment to electric vehicles and launching a broader platform, “Drive Bigger,” which includes this current campaign.
“The platform is working well in the marketplace,” Jacobs said. “The dealers love it because, for the first time in many years, they have a powerful tool that people can rally around. This will go across all of the products, and we’ll keep exploring and pushing different aspects of this idea of driving something bigger than yourself.”
Looking forward, Jacobs sees continued whitespace to explore for VW and is acutely aware of the history of the brand. While it’s all about evolving, Jacobs understands that the heritage of the automaker, both good and bad, is not meant to be ignored or swept away.
“There’s a great history of great cars and advertising to live up to,” he said. “[We look at] what the Beetle did for the world, and how we can do that for electrification and the next generation of vehicles.
“Then there’s the future of this company. ‘Drive Bigger’ came from the truth. They needed to pivot, and it took the emissions scandal to get them to that point.”
Agency: Johannes Leonardo
Client: Volkswagen USA
Director: Steve Rogers
Production Company: Biscuit
Post-Production: The Mill
Music House: KOM
Licensed Music: Virgile Allien “Gates of Heaven”