Does the Lexus Hoverboard Deserve the Hype?

August 5, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Space-age engineering projects like this might be a glimpse into the future of advertising.

Imagine a car commercial. It’s probably got a car in it – the one that it’s trying to sell to you. It’s probably a 30- to 60-second film playing in a commercial break on TV or before a film. It’s probably shot very nicely with a big crew and a high production budget. And it’s probably completely failing to hold your attention.

There’s room for those ads, but that’s not what Lexus and their agency CHI & Partners have been doing in their most recent global campaign. They’ve chosen to do something more futuristic. As the fourth and arguably most ambitious project in their Amazing in Motion series, the Japanese car brand and their agency have built a hoverboard.

The main video of the campaign, called Slide, hit the internet this week. Directed by Smuggler’s Henry-Alex Rubin, it shows pro skateboarder Ross McGouran gliding around on it in effortless skate-film style. “He’s the only person in the world to have mastered the art of hoverboarding,” says Sarah Golding, CHI & Partners’ CEO at a launch event for the film. That’s a big claim, but he’s certainly come the closest out of anyone to achieving the Marty McFly dream.

Brand / Client: Lexus International
Title of Ad: SLIDE
Executive Creative Director: Jonathan Burley
Creative Director: Monty Verdi
Creative: Brad Woolf, Dan Bailey
Photographer: Olly Burn
Photographer’s Assistant: Hannah Rose
Agency Executive Producer: Zoe Barlow
Agency TV Producer: Zoe Barlow, Nikki Cramphorn, Nicola Ridley, Matt Cresswell, Lindsay Hughes
Agency Content Producer: Karina Aloupi
Digital & Content Creatives: Chad Warner, Ben da Costa
Digital Designer: Chad Warner
Production Company: Smuggler
Executive Producers: Fergus Brown/Chris Barrett
Production Company Producer: Ray Leakey
Director: Henry-Alex Rubin
Director’s Assistant: Sarah Michler
Cinematographer/DOP: Ken Seng
Production Designer: Joel Collins
Rider/Hoverboarder: Ross McGouran
2nd Rider/Hoverboarder: Ignacio Morata
Editing Company: Marshall Street Editors
Editor: Spencer Ferszt
Editor Assistant: Jake Armstrong
Local Production Company: Goodgate
Local Production Company Producer: Gordon Mackinnon

Music Artist and Title: Rudimental “Waiting all Night”
Music Company: Platinum Rye
Music Composition:  “Waiting all Night”
Master Recording: Warner Music
Publishing: Bucks Music Group, BMG Rights Management (UK) Limited, Sony/ATV Music Publishing
Music Supervisors: Platinum Rye
Music Writer: Edward Jonathan Harris, Kesi Dryden, Piers Sean Aggett, Amir Izadkhah, James Richard Newman
Post Production Company: MPC
VFX Supervisor: Bill McNamara
Post Production Supervisor: Tim Phillips
Colourist: Jean-Clement Soret
Audio Post Production: Wave Studios
Sound Design: Parv Thind

Content Production Company: Carbon
Head of Carbon: Chris Reed
Content Director: Ben Hanson, Simon Frost
Content: With special thanks to Henry-Alex Rubin
Content Producer: Nazneen Hosenie
Content DOP: Ben Hanson, Simon Frost, James Blann (Announce only)
Content Editor: Simon Pearson, Pete Brenan, Alastair Graham
Content Colourist: Simon Pearson
Content Post Production Producer: Leanne Tarvin
Content Graphic Animator and Supervisor: Thomas Brady
Content Post Production: Kerry Arif, Aubrey Ghansah
Content Audio/Sound Design: Russell Bradley @ Scramble
Art Buyer: Emma Modler
CHI&Partners CEO: Nick Howarth
CHI&Partners Business Director: Jack Shute
CHI&Partners Account Director: Catherine Peacock
CHI&Partners Account Manager: Chris Tivey, Lexi Alston
CHI&Partners Planner: Rebecca Munds
Public Relations: Nita Rushi

Digital Content Strategy: AllTogetherNow
AllTogetherNow CEO: Conor McNicholas
AllTogetherNow MD: Steve Parker
AllTogetherNow Account Director: James Chanter

Model Maker: Robert Jones
Model Maker Assistant: Glenn Haddock
Production Designer: Joel Collins

Technical Partners: IFW Dresden and Evico GmbH
Evico GmbH CEO: Dr Oliver De Haas
Evico GmbH Chief Engineer, Hoverboard: Dr Lars Kühn
Evico GmbH Engineer, Hoverboard: Marcel Hüpfel
Evico GmbH Engineer, Hoverboard: Kai Günther
IFW Dresden, Pioneer of Superconducting Levitation: Dr Ludwig Schultz
IFW Dresden, Chief Engineer Supratrans: Dietmar Berger
IFW Dresden, Scientist: Thilo Espenhahn
IFW Dresden, Engineer: Ronald Uhlemann
IFW Dresden, Student: Stefan Hameister

Client Details: Lexus International; Atsushi

The Lexus hoverboard works with liquid nitrogen-cooled superconductors and magnets. Tiles of yttrium, barium, copper, and oxygen are cooled down to around -197 degrees Celsius using liquid nitrogen. To levitate, the board must be resting on magnets, which is why Lexus had to build their own custom hoverpark in Catalonia, complete with a magnetic track for the board to follow.

Ross isn’t the first famous skateboarder to try hoverboarding. Last autumn Tony Hawk demonstrated the Kickstarter-funded Hendo hoverboard, sliding around on a copper halfpipe.

The Lexus team claim they weren’t worried about this stealing their thunder. Ross asserts that it was easy to do something more impressive on this project. “As a skateboarder you could see that he couldn’t control it at all,” he says. “With this board I’m not in control of it at all either – I’m just riding it. The track controls where it’s going. [But] you can have more fun with it. You can do more tricks, whereas he couldn’t really do anything.”

CHI & Partners’ Creative Director on the project Monty Verdi agrees that the Hendo board was a good benchmark for them to beat. “We knew what we had was going to be better than that,” he says.

By the point the public saw the Hendo board, Lexus and CHI & Partners were already deep into the development of their board – a gruelling 18-month challenge chronicled by the documentary film Lexus released with their demo video. Working on it for over a year, Monty says the five-minute film could have easily been up to an hour long.

The agency’s Business Director Jack Shute summarises the obstacles the project faced:

“It was a first of every front. It wasn’t like you were taking a proven thing and putting it in an environment where it hadn’t been used before. You’re trying to invent the technology, then trying to develop that into something that exists within a shape that you need it to, then trying to make it ride-able and work with Ross to deliver that, then trying to build the environment that it can exist in, then putting the two together. Every facet of the project is learning at the same time. So every time you solve a problem you get a call at three o’clock in the morning saying ‘this bit’s not working.’”

Negotiations between scientists and engineers, an advertising agency and a skateboarder weren’t always smooth. Monty marvels at the number of times somebody said what they were doing was impossible, from scientists to production companies.

Ross remembers the engineering team repeatedly telling him no. One particular surprise was the jump that serves as the film’s climax. The engineering team didn’t believe it would work, assuming the magnet forces would pull the board in and then even if the board did escape they didn’t think it would reconnect. Ross tried it anyway. “And it worked straight away on his own,” he says. “So we just kept going through things like that. [The engineers] saying no then just trying it anyway.”

Why go to all the trouble just for an ad though? Considering these hoverboards won’t be on sale to the public in the foreseeable future and it certainly doesn’t look like a Lexus hovercar is on the cards, is all this work worthwhile?

Naturally, CHI & Partners defend their decision. Sarah explains her hopes that their achievement will make people “reappraise the Lexus brand and product.” The hope is that when people see Lexus can make a hoverboard they will wonder how this innovative spirit is applied in their cars. If they can overcome this challenge, imagine how well engineered their engines must be.

This strategy falls neatly into the groove several well-regarded brands are moving of marketing through product design and development. Like Volvo’s award-winning and potentially life-saving Life Paint campaign, which promoted a high-visibility paint to make cyclists safer on the roads, Lexus are creating something real rather than simply ‘telling a story’ with their advertising. “Brands that do, not just say, seem to be doing very well these days,” says Sarah. “They’re living their purpose.”

Just as Life Paint reminded us of the safety that Volvo prides itself in, Lexus’ hoverboard reminds us of the cutting-edge innovation that is integral to this Japanese car brand.

In a category full of clichés this approach is particularly interesting. We’ve seen a hundred pretty cars in beautifully shot films cruising through impossibly stunning scenery. Everyone’s bored of these spectacles. For Lexus to deliver what is essentially a skate video with a technological twist is a welcome surprise from the brand that made Alan Partridge’s car (it’s the Japanese Mercedes).

That’s why a pro skateboarder like Ross is a clever choice of brand ambassador. “I think it makes them look cool to a lot of people who probably didn’t think they were very cool,” he admits. Partridge probably wouldn’t get on with him.

The media attention the project has earned Lexus is pretty cool too. Tech publications like The Verge, Engadget and Wired got excited about their teaser video, which earned over 11 million views on YouTube without a penny of media spend or even actually showing the board in action.

It got people talking, which is key to this kind of marketing. “Ross has so many followers that people recognised [his] legs somehow,” says Monty, illustrating how closely the video was scrutinised by the citizens of the internet. And it didn’t take long for the geeks to speculate about the board’s design, deducing from the vapour it emits, it’s behaviour, size and shape that it uses nitrogen-cooled superconductors to levitate the board over magnets. 

Since the Slide film launched the web has been buzzing with conversation about the hoverboard, with articles about it on sites from the Daily Mail to Mashable. Naturally it’s all over social media too, with Lexus getting a spike of roughly seven times the number of daily mentions they’re used to.

The risk with daring the internet to talk about your brand like this is that it has a lot of potential to go wrong. Several articles and some social media opinions have focused on the limitations of the board – that it can only run on a track and has to be fuelled with liquid nitrogen and is hard to balance on. The Verge’s reaction was particularly brutal, summing up that “Even if you can get past the limitations (hope you’ve got a liquid nitrogen tank handy!), it doesn’t really matter, since Lexus won’t sell you one of these things. What we got is movie magic — well, ad magic, in this case — and I got to experience that magic in person.”

The problem is we’re spoilt by the dreams of science fiction. Everyone has an idea of a hoverboard in their mind. It’s the image of Marty McFly gliding effortlessly through the streets of the future. To judge Lexus’ real-life hoverboard by those fictional standards is unfair. Taking real physics and the technology available to us into account, what they’ve achieved is remarkable. Watch the film again. It’s much more exciting than a 30-second film of a car driving through a picturesque mountain pass.

Comments (3)

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