Spring 2017

Selling Cars With Compassion

Craig Gillespie opts for nuance over broad strokes in Saatchi & Saatchi's Toyota campaign


Craig Gillespie, left, used a multitude of L.A. locations for the Teamwork spot of Saatchi & Saatchi's Toyota campaign. (Photo: Courtesy Leo Circo)

Most automotive commercial campaigns, particularly those timed to major sporting events, are anything but subtle. However, for a recent campaign of six commercials for Toyota by Saatchi & Saatchi LA, veteran commercial director Craig Gillespie turned tradition on its ear and used the power of the 45-second spot to paint with nuanced character and emotion.

Although the ads were geared toward sports viewers, having received heavy rotation throughout the NFL playoffs, the themes transcended the jocular humor often associated with America's biggest pastime—or even the performance-driven aspects of car commercials—aiming instead to focus on inclusion and underscoring core family values such as love, compassion and sacrifice.

One spot (Championship Game) shows a family rooting for their wheelchair-bound dad competing against other handicapped players on the basketball court. The focus is on sportsmanship, not disability, with Gillespie's primary goal to "make it more about character." In another (Father and Son), a very familiar scenario plays out between a young man and a taciturn dad who can't express his feelings, until he lights up about a recent game they both watched.

"It's not so much family values as sportsmanship and the way people conduct themselves," says Gillespie about the overall campaign. "They were very simple ideas that I could be very subtle with." It's not the first time advertising designed to sell a product focuses instead, to quote Abraham Lincoln, on "the better angels of our nature," even if Toyotas are prominently featured in each spot.

The Teamwork spot emphasizes love, hard work and sacrifice. (Screenpulls: Courtesy of Toyota)

Teamwork, one of the more touching spots, chronicles the arduous effort by a high school football player, and his parents, to take his sport and academic goals to the next level. In rapid-fire fashion, starting out with more than 20 cuts in less than 20 seconds, the commercial depicts the daily grind of early-morning workouts and late-night study sessions, along with the physical toll they take. It's all laid out so seamlessly, and with such restraint, you almost don't realize until the heart-rending denouement that the mother and father are divorced.

"The connection was mutual respect," explains Gillespie, "combined with trying to get into college and struggling to make ends meet. I wanted to get the grind and the hard work that goes into the potential to get a scholarship and that involved shooting a lot of coverage—and getting the sense of time and effort that goes into this."

Gillespie says he worked with editor Haines Hall "to get a lot across very quickly and in a very emotional way" as well as DP Rodrigo Prieto, who shot digital on an Alexa with a combination of handheld and Steadicam, for maximum coverage. Teamwork, using a multitude of locations in Los Angeles, was shot in just two days.

Now in production on the feature I, Tonya, Gillespie, a five-time DGA Award nominee and the 2005 Commercial Award winner, says that in going from the commercial world to the feature world, it "took me a long time to be able to slow down the telling of the story—because every second in commercials is so precious."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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