My Campaign: the making of Honda 'Grrr'

In the first of a series of reflections on what it is like to produce award-winning work, Sean Thompson looks back at a 2004 ad that scooped the Cannes Film Grand Prix and asked can hate be good?

What do you hate right now? Brexit? The pandemic? Your ad agency? Hate is a powerful word; it touches a raw nerve, it gets you riled up and it starts wars, it is a universal feeling and timeless. But, can hate be good? Think about Greta Thunberg; she hates Donald Trump and uses her hate to make something better. Hate can be hugely dangerous but if you can channel it in the right way, it can create powerful change. 

The beginning 

For an idea to be any good, you need provocation. At Honda, when it came to diesel, there was a lot of provocation. The Japanese car maker required a heavy petroleum engine, and its Formula One mastermind, Kenichi Nagahiro, was asked to design one. But, he wouldn’t do it. He hated diesels. Much later, Kenichi retold his story ranting about the word HATE in big capital letters. Fortunately, the smart folks at Wieden & Kennedy were present and the strategist Stuart Smith was salivating. He honed his thinking and Michael Russoff, Richard Russell and I were briefed. Then the three of us had the creative breakthrough – this was a story of Positive Hate. 

The middle 

Everything is obvious after it’s done. There was no doubt we were going to write, strum, sing and whistle the theme tune. Obviously we were going to draw flying engines, with rabbits, penguins, fish, flowers and rainbows hating them. Of course we were set to bring back the jingle, a device not heard of in advertising for decades. And it went without saying we were going to make an impossibly long animation with Smith and Foulkes at Nexus. No, none of this was obvious at the time. We began with a drop of diesel. If you look at a dirty oil droplet in a certain light, you see all the colours of the rainbow. We thought: what if we could print the word “hate” in colourful type? The Beatles were always writing songs about love and putting the word in bright colours everywhere, what if we wrote a song about hate and did the same? Engines don’t do much on their own; what if we made them fly like Spitfires? The whistling in Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is cool; why not whistle? What if we created Hate World, where animals really, really hated diesels? Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth pushed us hard, like good creative directors do. We pushed ourselves hard, too, like good creatives do. Richard, Michael, and I presented the idea to Honda, with a guitar, voices, whistling and drawings. It went surprisingly smoothly. Smith and Foulkes at Nexus were brilliant. At the time, the 3D modelling was cutting edge. They described Hate World as Liberace’s golf course, which was pitch perfect. Months went by and the most bizarre car commercial ever made was finished. 

The end 

It’s a weird feeling when an ad that three mates have made goes ballistic when it launches. The results were off the scale. Honda sold out of diesel engines. The idea won every award going. Winning the Cannes Film Grand Prix was a blur. It was a very popular winner. We walked out onto the steps of Le Palais de Festival and the crowds had dispersed into the bars. We went straight to the Carlton and received a fantastic welcome. One of the most wonderful reactions was far less glamorous, but far more heart-warming. A councillor at a drug rehab clinic wrote to tell us that “Hate something, change something” was being used by its members to inspire positive change. That’s the power of Positive Hate. 

Afterword 

In some ways, Positive Hate drives us today at Who Wot Why. If you want advertising to transform your business, you have to do something provocative, shake things up, just like Kenichi did, and push things all the way. Oh, and who won Top Gear’s Man of the Year that year? Why, Kenichi, of course. 

Sean Thompson was a writer on Honda “Grrr” and is co-founder of independent agency Who Wot Why 

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