On Sunday the 6th of April 2003, during a commercial break from the Brazilian Grand Prix, Honda unveiled the advert ‘Cog’, a two minute long video depicting the inner parts of a Honda Accord working together in a chain reaction. Cog was a British television and cinema advertisement launched by Honda in 2003 to promote the seventh-generation Accord line of cars. In the advert a cog rolls gently down a wooden plank, knocking into a larger cog. It sets off an incredible chain reaction while the voice-over says: “Isn’t it nice when things just work?”
The advert was an overnight success both critically and financially. Honda’s UK domain saw more web traffic in the 24 hours after “Cog”‘s television début than all but one UK automotive brand received during that entire month. The branded content attached to “Cog” through interactive television was accessed by over 250,000 people, and 10,000 people followed up with a request for a brochure for the Honda Accord or a DVD copy of the advertisement. The media reaction to the advertisement was equally effusive; The Independent’s Peter York described it as creating “the water-cooler ad conversation of the year”.
However, the reception of ‘Cog’ was not all positive. Shortly after the appearance on television, Cog creators, Wieden+Kennedy received a letter from artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the creators of the 1987 art film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) which contained combinations of objects set out in a chain-reaction, similar to that of Cog. Der Lauf der Dinge, was Fischli and Weiss’ 30-minute 16mm film that presented a seemingly continuous chain reaction of everyday objects as they clatter joyously through a Zürich warehouse studio. It was first shown in a back room of Documenta, the international exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in the German town of Kassel, and quickly became a huge popular success.
The film was well known in the advertising industry, and its creators had been approached several times with offers for the right to use the concept, but had always declined. The letter pointed out several similarities between their work and “Cog”, and warned the agency that they were considering legal action on the basis of the “commercialisation and simplification of the film’s content and the false impression that [they] might have endorsed the use”. When interviewed by Creative Review magazine, the pair made clear that they wished they had been consulted on the advertisement, and that they would not have given permission if asked. Media publications quickly picked up the story, and asserted that Fischli and Weiss were already in the process of litigation against the car manufacturer.
Despite the lingering shadow of these accusations, “Cog” drew an unprecedented amount of critical acclaim. It received more awards than any commercial in history; so many that it was both the most-awarded commercial of 2004 and the 33rd-most-awarded commercial of 2003. The jury for the British Television Advertising Awards gave the piece the highest score of any commercial ever recorded; the jury’s chairman Charles Inge commented: “My own opinion is that this is the best commercial that I have seen for at least ten years.”After awarding “Cog” with several Silver awards, the president-elect of the D&AD Awards, Dick Powell, said of the piece: “It delights and entrances… it communicates engineering quality and quality of thinking, and leaves you with a smile
Since then, Der Lauf der Dinge or ‘The Way Things Go’ has been included in countless group exhibitions and shows and was shown on television (under the title Chain Reaction). Unusually for an artists’ film, it even became available to buy, on VHS and then DVD, in gallery shops and art bookstores. More recent tributes have been less cynical, with people now posting their own table-top attempts on YouTube. Twenty five years after it was first exhibited, Der Lauf der Dinge seems as popular as ever.