Yellow Hat is a nationwide Japanese chain of auto service stores whose ad agency has clearly huffed one exhaust molecule too many. The completely Mr Sparkle-ized ads exist ostensibly to notify you of Yellow Hat’s tire and battery services, but the execution is a seizure-inducing, brain-melting onslaught of hyperkinetic cuts, dancing girls, pop music so sugary it’ll give you cavities, and the occasional nostalgic car.
The basic formula is this: a vaguely retro setting such as a late-1970s game show stage, three synchronized dancers that bop spastically as if Manny, Moe and Jack were kidnapped by aliens and replaced by fembots, a song that’s part earworm jingle and part camp, and a quick cut to a mechanic torquing down a lugnut on an old car.
Here’s one whose visuals say late-1960s go-go flair, but whose music recalls a Bubble Era pop anthem — all while reminding us that “you can buy a battery too!” for your Mitsubishi Debonair.
Another one takes the same song but remixes it with early-90s rap bravado and a C2 Corvette. With some Japanese lines now translated to English, we can understand that they were was saying “You can change your oil and your battery too!”
Older Yellow Hat commercials lack the arresting stylized visuals, but you can see how they may have evolved. Instead of three synchronized female dancers, a trio of salarymen practice their golf swing in unison. A woman in a yellow hat randomly appears. A closeup of the mechanic with the torque wrench is inserted, but the car is modern. And of course, great tire deals abound.
Another one from the same era features breakdancers grooving in front of a different Corvette, this time a 1957 model. The production value was, um, primitive to say the least — there are amateur YouTube videos that look more produced. Believe it or not, this ad has sparked a raging online war between Japanese and Korean dance aficionados over whether Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame ripped off his trademark horse dance from the Yellow Hat crew.
[Note: the original ad has been taken down, but the above video has it at 5:41] Lastly, we arrive at the Yellow Hat commercial’s final boss form. It’s as if the Yellow Hat ad was an art form all its own, some prodigy of the craft spent his life studying the ones that had come before, disappeared to a drug-fueled retreat for a decade, and then emerged triumphant with a seminal work transcending the genre.
The moving images are so surreal they depart the mortal plane of advertising and enter the realm of the sublime. Watch this spot 20 times and you’ll notice something new with each viewing. The machine-gun cuts are quicker than ever, the song more icepick-to-the-frontal-lobe-y by several orders of magnitude, and the titular yellow hats are now comically small. There are massive shoulder pads, a tire that is also a cat, and an Isuzu Bellett.
And that’s just the first four seconds. It’s hard to say when the spot goes meta, or morphs into some sort of absurd non-narrative parody. Is it the moment when the dancers’ ever-grinning faces appear on their own oversized blazers? Or when the one on the end inexplicably floats away, not to be seen again? (It was always supposed to be three! That was the bargain, dammit!) We cannot attempt an explanation, except to say that a postmodern masterpiece has been achieved. Someone put this in the MoMA’s permanent collection right now.
Thanks (or curses) to Chris Nicholson for sending me down this rabbit hole.