clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Saturn’s “Sheet Metal” shows why driving is such a drag.

Filed under:

How a famous car commercial makes a case for getting rid of cars

This 15-year-old Saturn ad shows that cars take up too much space in cities

The ad is puzzling right from the beginning. A guy jogs backwards out of his garage—maybe going out for a run?—but he’s in regular clothes.

He’s joined on the street by other people doing the same: couples, families, coworkers, and even what looks like a group of kids going to school together, yet everyone is just walking in the street. Could this be it? A city where multimodal streets serve people, not cars?

It’s the voice over, at the very end of the spot, that gives it away: “When we design our cars, we don’t see sheet metal. We see the people who may one day drive them.” The camera pans down from the twilight sky to reveal three new cars by Saturn parked above the twinkling lights of Los Angeles. Awww, gotcha! It was about cars the whole time!

2002 was a different time—long before social media, as American cities were just starting to see an influx of new residents, and before serious collective action had been taken around climate change.

Cars were still king in most cities, and car ads were, in many ways, the apex of popular culture. Automotive messaging had the biggest budgets, the best directors, and the funniest agencies. “Sheet Metal,” as this ad was entitled, was part of this golden age of car advertising.

Jamie Barrett was a creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco when he wrote the ad (he left in 2012 to start his own agency). Saturn was not just a new client, but a new car company, launched a few years before. “The thinking behind the spot was quite clear,” he told me. “Caring about the people inside the cars, not just the cars themselves.”

But the concept for “Sheet Metal” almost got killed. “It tested really poorly on paper,” says Barrett. One problem was that it was difficult to envision what it might be like to put people into the context of a giant American city without cars. He remembers the ad team wrestling with a particularly perplexing creative challenge for the human actors: “If you stripped away the cars, how would they be moving around?”

The ad was shot over three days in Los Angeles. “We decided to have fun with it, showing the real people,” says Barrett. “Every time we’d move to a new setting—and some were more striking than others—you’d put people in places like a parking lot and be treated to this incredible visual.”

The ad shows why parking is especially problematic from an urban space perspective.

The parking lot shot, with dozens of people evenly dispersed along a vast plane of asphalt, hits home the idea that cities have made too much room for cars. So do the images of people sprinting—or, more often, standing still in “traffic”—on a freeway overpass, with so much road between them.

While he was watching the shoot from one of those overpasses, seeing the different formations of people move towards the camera, Barrett says he had the same thought himself: “Look at all that space when you wipe it clean of cars.”

The ad was a success from a creative standpoint. The new campaign—”It’s different in a Saturn”—won a gold Cannes Lion, a bronze Clio, and was cited by Creativity when it named Goodby agency of the year.

But it didn't sell that many cars. Saturn ended production in 2009, one of many automakers that found themselves decimated by the financial crisis, and, it should be noted, changing perspectives about car ownership.

Earlier this month, however, Saturn’s ad was making the rounds on social media. Transportation writers noted how a commercial once intended to sell a car now carried a completely different message—how much better cities would be without them.

Over a decade before that Saturn ad was made, the German city of Münster created a now-famous poster that underscored the tremendous space that cars take up in cities to move what is often just a single person.

City of Münster

Other cities have created their own version of the poster, and now, there are so many versions that they’ve become somewhat of a meme.

From a purely spatial perspective, it’s not easy for ads to make a case for cars in cities. Even when ads try to illustrate the benefits of ride-sharing or ride-hailing, they don’t succeed, because the ads still show how much space is lost to cars.

In 2017, Uber tried to make an ad that ostensibly showed the negative impacts of having too many “cardboard boxes” on streets, but ended up making an ad showing how bad Uber is for cities—if everyone in a city used Uber, it still wouldn’t reduce the number of boxes. Ahem, cars.

Which may be why some car companies are now making commercials which no longer prominently feature cars. Last year, Ford started championing multimodal transportation solutions as part of its City of Tomorrow campaign, showing a congested freeway being replaced by walking and biking paths. During this year’s Super Bowl, Toyota launched a “Mobility for All” campaign that doesn’t have any contemporary cars in it at all. The tagline: “When you’re free to move, anything’s possible.”

While we still haven’t achieved the dream of the post-car city, what’s most interesting about “Sheet Metal” is that some of the LA streets they had to close for the ad have become streets that now welcome people on foot.

In fact, the 2nd Street Tunnel, arguably the most famous place to shoot a car commercial, is a highlight of an annual CicLAvia route that closes streets to cars. Walking through the tunnel during the last CicLAvia, the space was echoing with delighted shrieks and bike bells. It would make a great commercial.

As for Barrett, he’s on board for our responsible, multimodal transportation future—he now owns an electric vehicle and has done creative work for an EV advocacy group—and he sees why the ad is newly powerful.

“I’m flattered that 15 years later people remember it and think of it in a different context,” he says. So with Saturn no longer around, do advocates have his permission to use the ad to not sell cars? “Yes,” he says, laughing. “You have my blessing.”

Los Angeles

Does L.A. Really Need a Gondola to Dodger Stadium?


Somehow Elon Musk’s Tesla Tunnels Are Even Less Useful Now


Why Bus-Loving Rep. Ayanna Pressley Wants Transit to Be Free

View all stories in Transportation