A robot to win our hearts: it must be a new Honda ad

Ever wondered what's involved in making one of the Japanese car giant's extraordinary and beguiling commercials? Ian Burrell found out when he visited the set of the latest in Berlin, and was introduced to 'Asimo'
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The Independent Online

Across the landing of a marbled staircase, inside the ornate Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, a child-sized robot is on the move, swinging its arms vigorously and marching forth with a slouched gait reminiscent of Suggs, the lead singer of Madness.

The robot, which is the height of an eight-year-old but has been given the appearance of a miniature spaceman, approaches one of the museum's touch-screen information panels, does a double-take, and then raises a hand to take some electronic directions. The exchange, which opens to the crack of a clapperboard and ends with a cry of "Cut there!", is being filmed by a 66-strong crew.

This Friday, Asimo, a robot that for the past 20 years has been under development by a team of Brussels-based computer experts, will make his debut on British television as the star of one of the most eagerly awaited advertising campaigns of the year.

After the take, Asimo spins 180 degrees with the precision of a guardsman, and walks Suggs-like back to his starting position, his battery-operated motors making a squelching whirr, as if he has orthotic supports inside his robotic feet. It is a quite extraordinary sight.

The only clue as to what Asimo is trying to sell us is in the red Honda insignia printed discreetly on its suit and on the back-pack that enables it to remain active for up to 30 minutes without the need for a recharge. This is a strategy known as a "master brand approach". There's not a car, a motorbike or even a Honda lawnmower in sight. It's all about our emotional responses to the robot.

Later on in the week-long shoot, Asimo will visit four other Berlin museums, some fusty and some modern, and be filmed riding the escalators and tackling the revolving doors, examining the exhibits - at one point finding himself helmet-to-helmet with the suit of a Sputnik cosmonaut, brought in from a museum in Russia - and interacting with us humans. Asimo brings a "humanity to technology", says Honda's William De Braekeleer, who works closely with the robot project. "In the future, the intention is to develop a truly autonomous robot that will be able to help people in their daily lives," he says with an accent and brimming optimism that could get him a part as a nutty professor.

Robots in British advertising are hardly an original concept. Indeed in some respects it all feels a bit last-generation, when the commercial breaks resounded to the cackle of the Smash Martians or the automaton's refrain of "Allo Tosh, Got a Toshiba?", while children practised body-popping and played with models of R2-D2.

But the difference with Asimo is that it actually performs. Honesty, says Honda's marketing director Jeff Dodds, is critical to the effectiveness of the campaign. "We are absolutely clear that what you see in the ad will absolutely be what he can do."

A similar approach has brought dividends for Honda in previous highly-regarded commercials such as the ingenious "Cog", in which various car parts delicately bumped into each other until a Honda Accord was released to move across the room. It took more than 600 attempts but was eventually filmed in a single take. Then there was "Choir", in which singers were recorded to imitating the sounds associated with the experience of driving a Honda Civic.

The problem for the advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy, which also made the previous Honda work, is how to convince the viewing public of the authenticity of what they're watching when today's media-savvy audiences are aware of the potential for trickery.

Michael Russoff, one of the creative team, ponders this problem while watching Asimo climbing a museum staircase. "We see so much computer-generated stuff in films like Robocop and Terminator 2 and are so used to seeing robots that aren't real, we tend to imagine there are people inside them. But this is real and we have to try and create something that people see and recognise as being real. That's quite a challenge."

The film crew is so vast that Russoff must observe Asimo on a distant monitor, set up downstairs in one of the museum's exhibition halls and placed, bizarrely, next to a couple of enormous stuffed hippopotamuses. "I've never worked with a robot before," he admits. "It's children, animals and robots now - although the robot is probably easier than animals or children."

Asimo does not have the prima-donna tendencies of a lead actor. There is no requirement for a Winnebago, just a gym-like contraption with yellow straps, into which it - Asimo is gender-neutral - is hoisted when not being filmed. That, and a back-up team of scientists that sits behind a desk laden with laptops, programming fresh instructions from the director.

"We've never shot Asimo in an ad before," says Ian Armstrong, Honda's marketing manager. "It has a whole range of movements but it has never had to follow the wishes of a director for little nuances and sentiments."

A second, smaller, film crew is also at work, led by 24-year-old producer/director Henry Mason, who was drafted in by Wiedens a fortnight earlier. He explains his role. "They had this idea that they wanted to do a viral campaign to create some hype around Asimo before the actual commercial came out. I'm making between five and 10 little two-minute films, which should be entertaining enough for people to want to download. The idea is to get people YouTube-ing them to their friends, because a lot of people in Britain don't know who Asimo is. Hopefully we can get X-million hits." The mini films are released on i-Tunes today.

The ad shoot has been coordinated by Paul Rothwell, managing director of the Gorgeous production company, who considered Budapest and Prague as possible locations before deciding on Berlin because of its breadth of museums.

Getting time with Asimo is not easy, for even though there are 40 models in existence around the world, as most are in Japan and the United States with only two in Europe.

For Dodds the hope is that Asimo will help to build on the success of previous campaigns, such as the feel-good animation "Grrr (Hate Something, Change Something)", that have helped transform the perception of the Honda brand, which he admits was previously, "reliable, safe, nothing remarkable".

He concedes that some Britons have still to imbibe the message that "we are a company that is looking for technology that will make life better for society". As well as representing this "brand strategy", Asimo must also help to shift some product, most specifically the soon-to-be-launched Honda CRV, which Dodds claims is less environmentally-damaging than other 4x4s. When the vehicle is unveiled to British dealers on Wednesday, Asimowill deliver the presentation.

For the director of the commercial, Peter Thwaites, working with a robot as his principal actor has been an experience he won't readily forget. He praises Asimo for not being a luvvie - "it certainly never over-acted, that was a good thing" - but found his directing talents severely tested by the robot's limited repertoire of movements, many of which weren't compatible with the notion of a regular, everyday museum-visiting android. He endured a "slow, arduous and painful process" where the slightest diversion from the script called for advanced mathematics, re-programming and the loss of hours of valuable filming time. Then again he has known worse.

"With my last commercial for HSBC I was working with an actor and we got up to 83 takes. I was going round the bend. I only ever needed two or three takes with Asimo."