by Judith Williamson
Urban industrial landscapes have been used to invoke a range of different meanings in ads over the last few decades. During the 1980s and 90s they provided the backdrop for a super-cool image of yuppified loft-living, mainly involving young men lounging in leather chairs in minimally furnished converted warehouses. There was a historical logic to this fantasy: it showed a city-financed lifestyle literally filling the shells of an earlier, manufacturing-based, capitalism – inhabiting the spaces made empty by its own advance.
This picture gradually gave way to a more threatening view of the inner-city landscape as urban jungle, no longer merely an accessory to the lifestyle of an ascendant class but a potential danger to it. The sense of cities as wild terrain, from which rugged protection is required for each individual, goes well beyond advertising in a culture where children are driven to school in Land Rovers and pedestrians are rigged out in mountain boots and rucksacks. Car ads during this period have been dominated by images of wilderness, and alongside the glaciers, deserts and savannas has run a version one might call ‘urban safari’.
These ads focus on presenting the car as a secure barrier between the individual and the threat of the streets. A recent example shows a father driving his son home from a football match, surrounded by supporters of the opposite team. The overt point is that the car is long enough for father and son, wearing different colours, to keep their distance from each other; but the unmistakeable wider meaning is that the car can protect you from the milling hordes and transport you safely through them.
‘Urbanproof’ is exactly the quality such ads promise for their products; and the use of this word in the Nissan Qashqai ad invokes the familiar sense of the city made dangerous by its inhabitants. Yet the image here is one completely devoid of people: the threat to the car comes from anthropomorphised buildings and machines in an animated city landscape – an urban environment inhabited not by people but by itself. This ad started its run alongside the release of Pixar’s latest animation, Wall-E, and draws very strongly on both the tropes and the sensibility of that innovative work. The world of Wall-E is not just post-industrial, but post-human: only machines are left among its ruined cities, and the most intense inner lives portrayed in the film – which does include humans in the setting of a spaceship – are those of Wall-E himself, a refuse-crushing machine, and Eve, the futuristic robot he falls in love with.
The paradoxical combination of rectangularity and emotive power in the figure of Wall-E is echoed very precisely in the shapes of the buildings brought to life in the Nissan ad: they share with film animation the quality of expressiveness conveyed through minimal means – suggestions of eyes and mouth combined to produce the effect of internality. The location of objects in the lit windows of these industrial buildings is enough to create an expression of menace, concern, mischievousness or shiftiness. Inasmuch as there is a real life referent to this part of the image, these are precisely the yuppie lofts discussed earlier, and they actually look quite cosy inside. It is the buildings that are wielding a spike, a hammer and, in the case of the middle one with an innocuous potted plant in the window, giant claws. Further threat comes from the spike of the digger, whose front lights create another face.
So the dangers one might encounter between the walls of a dark alleyway in an old industrial district have been absorbed into the walls themselves: the backdrop has become the antagonist. The proprotagonist in this scenario is the Nissan car, sleekly withstanding all the surrounding threats. Its shiny surface and smooth contouring contrast with the rough textures and box-like shapes of the buildings: it suggests an object from the future, which implies that the buildings – even the modern glass-faced blocks in the background – are from the past. Here again there is a powerful echo of Wall-E, set as it is in a future wasteland where the debris of today’s most up to date technology is as redundant as a cotton mill is today. Into this rusting landscape drops the futuristic robot Eve, whose fluid white form contrasts with Wall-E’s clunky angles; she embodies a future technology at once subtler and more powerful than his, and ours. The Nissan Qashqai, too, seems to have dropped from the future into a dark age of technology’s Neanderthals, who wield the mechanical equivalent of flint tools.
This dystopian backdrop is shown, necessarily, at dusk: the portrayal of falling darkness behind the skyline is integral to the sense of danger in the setting, and essential for the window lights that give the buildings personalities. Superficially realistic but essentially implausible, this landscape could only have been produced digitally. It speaks of a nitty-gritty urban twilight, but cannot in any way be one.
Against this backdrop the Nissan Qashqai appears as if in a showroom: photographed with light bouncing off its streamlined surfaces, from a source completely at variance with the suggested twilight behind the blocks. The difference in the means of producing these images, the ultra realistic car and the Pixar-style animated background, merely underlines the sense of the car’s glossy difference from its ugly surroundings. Paradoxically, a new technology has produced the image of an old one – the worn brickwork and rusty metal that threaten the Qashqai – while the conventional car photo in the foreground suggests a technology from the future. Together they mark an interesting new step in the changing portrayal of urban life.