Paul Giamatti and Kieran Culkin Star in VW's Wry Critique of Excess

First of three celebrity-accountant spots breaks today

Volkswagen has been using famous songs in its ads since Johannes Leonardo took over as lead creative agency. Now, it's turning to famous actors, as well—in a three-part series for the Atlas Cross Sport that takes some pot shots at our culture of excess.

In the new ads, created by Johannes Leonardo, Paul Giamatti plays an accountant whose job is largely to babysit a free-spending celebrity client played by Kieran Culkin. In the first spot, breaking Monday night during the finale of The Bachelor on ABC, Giamatti becomes increasingly agitated as he fields calls from Culkin, who apparently hasn't met anything he doesn't want to buy.

Eventually, though, they have a breakthrough of sorts.

The Accountant Part I | VW Atlas Cross Sport

The "Celebrity Accountant" series kicks off a year-long effort of playfully tweaking excess culture, which VW has already been communicating through its "Drive Bigger" platform. The second spot goes live March 13, and the third on March 23.

The Atlas Cross Sport, a luxurious but modestly priced SUV, is characterized as "excessive in all the right places."

For more on the campaign, Muse spoke with Johannes Leonardo associate creative directors Bryan Barnes and Allison Lackey.

Muse: Fun idea. Where did it come from?

Bryan Barnes: Thanks, we think so too! Over the past year, Volkswagen has tasked us with pushing the "Drive Bigger" platform through unique product launches. When we saw the new Atlas Cross Sport for the first time, we were impressed with its quality—and we are not just saying that because they are our client. It's pretty badass. It has the sleek design of a luxury SUV but is both practical and attainable.

Allison Lackey: What we have learned about Volkswagen drivers is that they are unlike any other drivers out there. They are savvy, and have other priorities rather than buying the most expensive car. At the same time, people across America are overspending, especially on cars. So we thought of this idea of how to present this affordable-looking sports SUV in that lens as a more affordable option for VW drivers. 

Barnes: And finally, there is nobody more familiar with overspending than a celebrity accountant with a bunch of high-profile clients. We felt this could be a fun premise to bring this thought to life. Driving Bigger isn't about saying excess is a bad thing, it's about leaving unnecessary excess behind. 

What was the scripting process for this?

Lackey: While we had a script in place for the first spot for several months, we were overjoyed to learn from our clients that they wanted to extend this storyline to two more spots. Knowing we had such incredible actors was an exciting proposition for us as well. We worked to fine-tune the scripts with them in mind. 

Working with our director Steve Rogers and the actors themselves, we gave a relatively simple comedy premise an arc that extended to multiple dream locations, like the Hoover Dam and a remote ghost town in the middle of Nevada.

Why were Paul and Kieran right for these roles?

Barnes: Casting was key in having characters with the right tone for Volkswagen. We didn't want the ad to be slapstick. We knew we needed the perfect balance of drama and comedy within the campaign—a full range of emotions so you can feel the accountant's struggle and care for his overspending clients, while also giving the viewers subtle and smart humor that has always made Volkswagen great.

Lackey: Looking back, we're not sure anyone would have played the role of a high-profile celebrity accountant better than Paul Giamatti. And Kieran, he's an excellent actor. We are also huge fans of their work and wanted the casting choices to be as premium and unexpected as the car itself.

Tell us a little about the shoot.

Lackey: Steve Rogers was key to helping us bring this tone to life. His style of comedy has a unique sense that is both dramatic and real while also being humorous.

How does this work continue VW's efforts to change and evolve its image? And why does targeting "excess culture" fit the brand's new path?

Barnes: The idea of Driving Bigger is all about living smarter and setting aside self interest in service of the common good. With the launch of a new campaign for the new Atlas Cross Sport, we are pushing up against the culture of excess to maintain that mission and platform idea. We are playfully challenging the status quo—something the brand has always done with Volkswagen's history of smart and witty advertising.


Agency: Johannes Leonardo
Client: Volkswagen USA
Director: Steve Rogers
Production Company: Biscuit
Post-Production: The Mill
Music House: KOM
Licensed Music: Virgile Allien "Gates of Heaven"

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