It began innocently enough sometime in late November. A snowy scene, a line of cars, sleigh bells. Typical holiday auto ad until Michael Bolton shows up, dressed in a winter coat, belting out his well-documented “constipated white man's Ray Charles” bit.
“What does it feel like to get a great deal at Happy Honda Days?” the voiceover asks as one of the ads opens. A twentysomething couple are sitting in their new car, and they press a button for Michael Bolton Radio. Suddenly he is illuminated before them, singing on the roof of a sedan, natch. (Do not attempt flashes at the bottom of the screen.) The couple stare at him with somewhat blank yet slightly amused faces. In another ad, figure-skaters glide past as he sings, “It's a winter wonderland where snow is gonna blow, blow, blow.”
Ugh. Why the fuck would Honda hire Michael Bolton? I asked my friend. Not that Honda is cutting-edge hip, but it does try and appeal to young people, right? I was suspicious, but then a funny thing started to happen. After about the 20th Boltoning I found myself unmuting the commercials. This is something I never do. The sad truth was that I liked the goddamn songs. I daresay they made me want to go buy a Honda, each crescendo of his voice imploring me to improve my dull existence with a new CR-Z. I even went onto YouTube so that I could watch them again. I sing the choruses in the shower.
It was all so earnest, so seemingly sincere, that I was surprised at the reveal. “Honda is going over the top this holiday season,” reads the press release on the Honda website, “with a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek multi-platform advertising campaign.” I think I have a pretty good sense of humor but if I can't tell that something is supposed to be funny, either they did it wrong or I am just really, really getting old. Surely liking a Bolton performance is a bad sign, right?
Nah, it can't be that. It has to be that Honda merely failed in its attempt to be humorous. The ads aren't over-the-top enough — these are car commercials, remember? They are always ridiculous anyway — and the onlookers who get surprised by Bolton's presence aren't anywhere near as horrified/amused/ironic as they should be. What we end up with is a basic rah-rah car commercial. He's technically cheesy, yes, but if you are around long enough, as he has been, you move on from being cheesy to merely corny. If Spinal Tap can say there's a fine line between stupid and clever, let me offer that there is also a fine line, taste aside, between cheese and corn.
The Los Angeles-based advertising agency RPA obviously sold this ad concept to Honda as a total integration between TV, radio, print, and social media. How else to explain Bolton's personal greetings to lucky fans who used the hashtag #XOXOBolton on all their Tweets, Instagrams, Facebook posts, and Vines? People received personal greetings sung to them by Bolton and posted on YouTube. It would be funny to get a personal greeting from Michael Bolton, right? Ha ha ha! But it would also be kind of cool to get a personal greeting from Michael Bolton.
So, I ask you: Have we actually reached a place in pop-culture history where something can at once be hokey, sincere, and ironic, all at once? It is appealing to every single goddamn person who watches those ads; everyone will have a reaction, be it positive, negative, or the feeling that you are in on the joke. Honda is having its fruitcake and eating it too.
Here's all that matters, though: Those are the only ads I remember from this holiday season. I know that Honda has big sales this time of year, thanks to those ads. I have been discussing these ads with people, trying to figure out why I like them so much. My friends in turn have been telling me what they think of them (They ruined my Christmas is a popular response.) Basically my life has becoming the living embodiment of #XOXOBolton. Now that December is gone and the ads are petering out, I feel a loss. I also can't tell if the ads' manipulation of me is all part of whatever irony Honda was going for by picking Bolton: He's so bad, he's great, or is he? Or is it humor? Or is it making fun of car ads in general? Whatever the case, I like Honda more. Mission accomplished, Rubin Postaer and Associates. You've gone full meta.