My previous column talked about recent Ford commercials using an Italian cartoon creation — Osvaldo Cavandoli's La Linea character — to promote the new C-MAX Hybrid, presumably playing on viewer nostalgia for the cartoon series as it appeared on American TV in the 1980s and again more recently.
Now Audi has rocketed past that in so many ways with its newest movie-related commercial. And, no, I'm not referring to "Iron Man 3," where Tony Stark's Audi R8 gets almost as much screen time (and sympathy) as Jon Favreau's character.
No, it's Audi's "Star Trek" tie-in that's so fascinating. Of course, since the Trek films take place in the future, there's no room in them for traditional product placement. But Audi has produced a commercial featuring both Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, both portrayers of the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer, Mr. Spock, in the rebooted Star Trek film series and loaded it with Star Trek references and in-jokes.
Quinto and Nimoy playing themselves engage in a series of competitions: a game of the sort of three-dimensional chess introduced in the original TV series, a race to their golf club, and various bits of one-upmanship involving jargon from the Star Trek universe.
Nimoy drives a Mercedes-Benz while Quinto pilots an Audi. Quinto's vehicle is usually lit and shot as though it were the starship Enterprise, and Nimoy's is always filmed at a leisurely pace to suggest perhaps a more sluggish performance.
Nimoy is also stymied when he tries to put his golf clubs into the Mercedes' smaller trunk and winds up having to store them in his front passenger seat. At that point, a warning appears at the bottom of the screen: "Dramatization: Do not store cargo in the passenger seat." If you're used to seeing warnings in car commercials that their amazing stunts were actually performed by trained professionals and you shouldn't try them yourself, this alert, while no doubt actually demanded by Audi's legal advisors, only adds to the humor of the commercial.[
When Nimoy arrives at the country club (spoiler alert!) second, he recaps a line he made famous in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) and reprised in the 2009 reboot. And even though Audi has him lose the auto "race," they do let him best Quinto — once they're out of the cars — as only Spock could.
But one bizarre element of the commercial will have viewers not familiar with all the backwaters of Leonard Nimoy's career puzzled, to say the least. As he moseys through traffic in his Mercedes, he sings a bizarre song about Bilbo Baggins' adventures in J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit"!
When the original Star Trek TV series made Nimoy a pop culture icon, he made (the mistake of making) a couple of record albums on which he sang. (So did William Shatner! Neither should have!) And "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" (composed by Charles Randolph Grean) appeared on his second album, "Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy" in 1968.
That would be a pretty obscure in-joke, except that some surviving footage of Nimoy lip-synching the song before the album's release on a short-lived 1967 TV show called "Malibu U" has taken on a life of its own. In it, Nimoy sports his Spock hairdo, and various young girls boogie around him wearing Spock (or perhaps hobbit) ears. He sings better than Shatner did, but it's still a jaw-dropping performance.
You can see the complete 21/2-minute Audi video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPkByAkAdZs. But note that Leonard does utter a bleeped expletive when he can't fit his golf bag into his trunk, and he does call Quinto a mildly impolite name.
Nimoy singing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" shows up on a lot of internet sites, but you can see the complete 2/12-minute performance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGF5ROpjRAU. But note that the second verse apparently could only be found in black and white. And whatever you do, make sure you're not drinking anything when you watch it. This is a serious spit-take alert!
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.