Honda – The story of Cog

In 2002 Honda Motor Company was the number-three Japanese automobile manufacturer in the world, behind Toyota and Nissan. While Honda’s automobile sales in Japan and the United States were considered strong, sales in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe were thought to be weak, even though automobile production in the United Kingdom had been ongoing for a decade. Further, Honda vehicle sales had been declining in these regions since 1998. In response to these problems Honda hired ad agency Wieden+Kennedy’s London office to create an advertising campaign that would directly address the issues. ‘‘The Power of Dreams’’, released in 2002, was an omnipresent campaign in the United Kingdom and beyond, using television, direct mail, radio, posters, press, interactive television, cinema, magazines, motor shows, press launches, dealerships, postcards, beermats (coasters), and even traffic cones. It built upon Honda’s company slogan, ‘‘Yume No Chikara,’’ which was first endorsed in the 1940s by the company’s founder, Soichiro Honda. Translated into English, it meant to ‘‘see’’ one’s dreams. Wieden+Kennedy used this phrase as the basis of its question to consumers: ‘‘Do you believe in the power of dreams?’. 

The global campaign, which centered on this tagline, included print and television components starring ASIMO, a humanoid robot developed by Honda. While the ASIMO ads gained widespread recognition, the 2003 television commercial called ‘‘Cog’’ was clearly a pinnacle of the campaign. In a single take with no special effects, more than 85 individual parts of the new Accord interacted in a complicated chain reaction.

Cog was first aired on British television on Sunday 6 April 2003. The full 120-second version of the advertisement aired only 10 times in all, and only in the 10 days after the initial screening. The slots were chosen for maximum impact, mostly in high-profile sporting events. The campaign was tremendously successful both critically and financially. The media reaction to the advertisement was equally effusive, with articles appearing in both broadsheets such as The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, and The Guardian.

The full version was then put aside in favour of a 60-second and five 30-second variations, which continued to air for a further six weeks. These shortened versions made use of newly-introduced interactive options on the Sky Digital television network. Viewers were encouraged to press a button on their remote control, bringing up a menu that allowed the viewer to see the full 120-second version of the advertisement. Other menu options included placing an order for a free documentary DVD and a brochure for the Honda Accord.

The DVD, which was also included as an insert in 1.2 million newspapers in the first week of the commercial’s rollout, contained a “making-of” documentary featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of the production process, a virtual tour of the Accord, the original music video to “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, and an illustrated guide to all the parts shown in Cog. The interactive 30-second versions of Cog proved hugely successful. Over 250,000 people used the menu option, spending an average of two and a half minutes in the dedicated advertising area. A significant number watched the looped 120-second version for up to ten minutes. Of those who opened the menu, 10,000 requested either a DVD or a brochure, and Honda used the data collected from the interactive option to arrange a number of test drive.

The Script

Cog opens with a close-up on a transmission bearing rolling down a board into a synchro hub. The hub in turn rolls into a gear wheel cog, which falls off of the board and into a camshaft and pulley wheel. The camshaft swings around into the centre section of an mounted on top of an engine crankshaft assembly. The exhaust swings round and knocks into a series of 3 valve stems. The valve stems roll down a front bonnet placed on top of an alloy wheel rim, releasing an engine oil dipstick with a throttle actuator shaft on the end. The disptick flicks over an engine cam cover into a radiator.The radiator overturns, falling onto a wheel balanced on top of a water pump housing. This wheel rolls off and knocks into the first of a series of three weighted wheels, which roll up a ramp into brake disc. The disc falls onto a seatbelt which, using a suspension lower arm as a lever, pulls a rear seat back into an upright position. As it does so, the seat disturbs a front windscreen wiper blade attached to a pulley wheel. The wiper blade travels along a bonnet release cable and overturns a tin of engine oil. The tin empties its contents onto a lower shelf, which disturbs the balance of several valve springs against flywheel. The oil alters the balance enough to cause several of the springs to roll. The valve springs are slowed enough by the spilt oil to allow them to drop into a cylinder head assembly mounted on a seesaw constructed of a board placed on a rocker shaft and gear wheel cog. On the other end of the seesaw is a car battery. As the assembly drops, the battery is pushed into a cylinder block wired up to an engine fan. It completes the circuit, and the fan rolls across the open floor into an anti-lock braking system modulator unit. The modulator unit knocks a rear silencer box down a ramp and into a rear suspension link. The link pushes a transmission selector arm into a brake pedal loaded with a rubber brake grommet. The grommet launches into a tyre mounted on a front end assembly, knocking it off and onto a wire suspended between two brake discs. The wire pulls a con rod, rotating it into a cylinder liner. The liner rolls down an incline, slowed by another con rod, the electric window of a front door assembly, and a series of interior grab handles. It falls onto another battery, completing a circuit. The circuit powers a windscreen washer jet pointed at a windscreen. The automated water sensors in the windscreen activate a pair of wiper blades, causing them to crawl across the floor. The wipers release a handbrake lever keeping a quartet of suspended window panels in place. As the windows swing round, the resulting air draft knocks the liner panel of a rear tool tray into a rocker shaft, which rolls across the floor into a suspension coil spring. The collision causes enough of a vibration to knock a second shaft into a battery. This activates the Accord’s CD player (playing Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”). The vibrations from the car speakers shake a coil spring just enough to set it rolling off a rear tailgate glass panel, and onto a brake pedal. Once pushed, the pedal causes a set of rear shock absorbers to depress, pushing a polenoid onto a button on an ignition key. The button remotely closes the hatchback of an assembled Honda Accord on a brake-disc-mounted trailer. The closing of the door causes the weight of the car to shift enough to start it rolling down the slope to its final position in front of a tonneau cover with “Accord” printed on it, weighted with a wheel hub assembly. The piece closes with a voiceover from writer Garrison Keillor, who asks, “Isn’t it nice when things just work?”. The screen then cuts to a plain white background, where the Honda logo fades into the centre of the screen. The black text “The Power of Dreams” fades in shortly after the Honda logo has completely faded in.

The Making of

The Honda executives were intrigued, but demanded a cut using actual automotive parts before giving permission to go ahead with the full-scale projects. Once Cog was green-lit with a budget of £1 million, Gooden and Walker wasted no time in recruiting a London-based team to go through the logistics of the shoot in detail. The team, which comprised engineers, special effect technicians, car designers, and even a sculptor, spent a month working with parts from a disassembled Honda Accord before the design for the advertisement’s set was even finalised. Approval for the script took another month. Honda insisted that several specific Accord features, such as a door with a wing-mirror indicator and a rain-sensitive windscreen, appear in the final cut. The company planned to highlight these features in sales brochures. Antoine Bardou-Jacquet was brought on to direct the piece. Bardou-Jacquet was mostly known for directing several award-winning music videos.

Bardou-Jacquet wanted to compose the advertisement with as little computer-generated imagery as possible, believing that the final product would be that much more appealing to its audience. To this end, he set two months aside for the creation of hundreds of conceptual drawings detailing various possible interactions between the parts, and a further four months for practical testing and development. For the testing phase, the script was broken into small segments, each comprising only one or two interactions. Ideas deemed unworkable by the testing crew, such as airbag explosions and collisions between front and rear sections of the car, were abandoned, and the remaining segments were slowly brought together until the full and final sequence was developed. The final cut of Cog consists of two continuous sixty-second dolly shots taken from a technocrane, stitched together later in post-production.
Four days of filming were required to get these two shots, two days for each minute-long section. Filming sessions lasted seven hours and the work was exacting, as some parts needed to be positioned with an accuracy of a sixteenth of an inch. Despite the detailed instructions derived from the testing period, small variations in ambient temperature, humidity and settling dust continually threw off the movement of the parts enough to end the sequence early. It took 90 minutes on the first day just to get the initial transmission bearing to roll correctly into the second. Between testing and filming, 606 takes were needed to capture the final cut. The team commandeered two of Honda’s six hand-assembled Accords—one to roll off the trailer at the end of the advertisement, the other to be stripped for parts. While several sections of the early scripts had to be abandoned due to the total unavailability of certain Accord components, by the time production finished the accumulated spare parts filled two articulated lorries.

Cog needed only limited post-production work, as the decision had been made early on to eschew computer-generated imagery wherever possible. To further reduce the work required in post, Flame artist Barnsley  from the post-production company The Mill, spent a lot of time on set during filming, where he advised the film crew on whether particular sections could be accomplished more easily by re-shooting or in post. Even so, the constant movement of the components on-camera made it difficult to achieve a seamless transition between the two 60-second shots. Several sections also required minor video editing, such as re-centering the frame to stay closer to the action, removal of wires, highlighting a spray of water, and adjusting the pace for dramatic purposes.

Plagiarism accusations

Shortly after Cog appeared on television, Wieden+Kennedy received a letter from Peter Fischli and David Weiss, creators of the 1987 art film “Der Lauf der Dinge”. The art 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 Fishcli and Weiss were already in the process of litigation against the car manufacturer.  Ultimately, Fischli and Weiss never filed a lawsuit against either Wieden+Kennedy or Honda UK, but their accusations continue to colour perceptions of the work within the advertising community.


Having swept the majority of award ceremonies within the advertising community to date, Cog was widely believed to be the favourite for the industry’s top award, the Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. Cog held a disadvantage in that the chairman of the Cannes voting jury, Dan Wieden, was one of the founders of Wieden+Kennedy, the firm responsible for creating Cog; tradition holds that it is bad form for the chairman of the jury to vote for a piece by his or her own agency. 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.”

The result at Cannes was a surprise; after the longest judging period in the festival’s history, the Grand Prix went to neither of the two event favourites. Instead, the jury awarded the prize to Lamp a U.S. advertisement directed by Spike Jonze for the IKEA chain of furniture stores. Chief among speculated reasons for the outcome was the plagiarism debate surrounding Cog. Ben Walker told “A couple of people on the jury told me the reason it didn’t win is ’cause they didn’t want to be seen to be awarding something which people in some corners had said we copied.”

Homages and Parody

The popularity and recognition received by Cog led a number of other companies to create pieces in a similar vein, either as homages, in parody, or simply to further explore the design area. The first of these was Just Works, a deliberate parody advertisement for the 118 118 Directory Assistance Service in the summer of 2003, in which the Honda parts are replaced with such oddities as a tractor wheel, a flamingo and a space hopper, although what makes this advertisement different is that the familiar 118 118 runners simply push the items forward to keep things going. Campaign magazine listed Cog, along with Balls for the Sony Bravia as one of the most-imitated commercials in recent times.

Advertising Agency:  Wieden+Kennedy, London
Creative Director:  Tony Davidson, Kim Papworth
Copywriter:  Ben Walker
Art Director: Matt Gooden
Production Company:  Partizan, London
Director:  Antoine Bardou-Jacquet
Year: 2003


4 Comments on “Honda – The story of Cog”

  1. honda forum says:

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  2. :::Icônica::::::: says:

    […] edição de 2004 do Cannes Lions, essa campanha da Honda era uma das favoritas ao Grand Prix. Mas, segundo notícias, a trajetória da campanha teria sido prejudicada por essa polêmcia (não encontrei informações […]

  3. :::Icônica::::::: says:

    […] edição de 2004 do Cannes Lions, essa campanha da Honda era uma das favoritas ao Grand Prix. Mas, segundo notícias, a trajetória da campanha teria sido prejudicada por essa polêmica. A agência Wieden+Kennedy, […]

  4. Icônica | Diálogos mal assumidos entre a arte e a publicidade [Cannes 2] says:

    […] edição de 2004 do Cannes Lions, essa campanha da Honda era uma das favoritas ao Grand Prix. Mas, segundo notícias, a trajetória da campanha teria sido prejudicada por essa polêmica. A agência Wieden+Kennedy, […]

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