Peter York On Ads: Not at the wheel, but Bowie drives The Car That Fell To Earth

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I couldn't watch Extras. Ricky Gervais went from Slough to Hollywood in three years max. It was grim. But you couldn't help noticing who was guesting, and the thought of David Bowie in there was deeply depressing. Bowie becalmed, rich, content, but presumably rather hypochondrial after the heart attack. Bowie into stock markets and contemporary art. Bowie US/Global rather than anywhere in particular. Bowie anything but androgynous now.

But once Bowie drove and consolidated a whole sensibility to huge effect. You could see it in hairstyles, clothes, and record production, of course, but in bigger themes as well - a new take on new tech and ways of thinking about America and its everyday surreal without making fun of it. He seemed to know where change was coming; he spent time in alpha cities when they were hotting up. He knew when to get wasted to some purpose.

In the Bowie industry there's always that debate about when he was at his best, most inventive, most influential. I'd go for "Young Americans"(1975) and its Nicholas Roeg-directed film parallel of 1976, The Man Who Fell To Earth. The latter's art direction is brilliant - designers are always visiting it surreptitiously for a few more steals - and "Young Americans" anticipated practically everything that mattered for 10 years from Superdisco to the Reagan presidency.

It all set a look from Soho and Berlin to Tokyo for the developing art/design crowd, the Taschen types, a global minority that's become an important babyboomer consumer group. They're the market for European, high-end design. They'll commission architects to build or re-fix their houses and buy Dries Van Noten rather than Donatella V.

They were in at the beginning of hip hotels in the 1980s as they got richer (and back at Claridge's 10 years later). They're sleeked up and cashed out but they still like black linen. They're crucial to several global niche brands. Where would Audi be without that lot?

Audi was the German car brand for them. Mercedes was crass and oversold, too easy and obvious and Made-it. BMW had gone from Sloane Boy Racer to yuppie to corporate parking space (and, second hand, to Brixton beatbox) in a decade. But Audi was the interesting OK, Dieter Rams-ish side of German, thoughtful and arty and stealth wealthy. More Swedish and Saab than full-on Kraut. Audi is the Edinburgh Television Festival and Sundance and Babington House. Cleverly positioned, culturally aligned (when the London Eye was new, they put an Audi in a pod). The one for Our Crowd.

The new Audi commercial for the A6 makes it The Car That Fell To Earth. It's an extravagant affair, 60 seconds of black and white with a brief burst of colour. A jump-cut video-installation sort of thing combining outback America and outer space, a plinky BBC electronic workshop music track and a host of mission control radio voices. Echoes and whispers, sightings and strangeness. Agitated horses sensing things. And long empty roads at night; the classic sci-fi horror build-up very elegantly done.

Then earth from space and all the old business of sending rockets up and getting them back. Flaring, burning re-entry, all edited like art. Then a little blaze of candy colour, the parachutes for the splashdown. It's not the visual language of mainstream commercials - it's distinctly more Turner Prize so far.

But then they've got something to say, namely that the Audi A6 development alone produced more patents than everything Nasa's done to date. More innovations, more high science. Then something touches down on the water like the returning astronaut capsules and bounces back as the A6, flying at us in a rather alarming vertical take-off.

Brands like Audi have learnt to avoid too many social cues and references that end up as fashion victims and hostages to fortune. They know their core market can read all that stuff only too well. They know it's divisive. But hitting the collective unconscious of the art movie and the art gallery memory bank, underwriting the brand with a strong science alibi rather than the bulls-balls nought-to-whatever macho of racing is the Audi kind of clever. And Bowie's a great reference point, provided you don't let him anywhere near it.