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'

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all