How Matthew McConaughey's Crazy Ads Gave Lincoln Some Much-Needed Buzz

Courtesy of Lincoln Motor Co.

The surreal ads inspired parodies but helped a carmaker starved for publicity

This story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Say what you will about Matthew McConaughey's television campaign for Lincoln Motors, which began airing in September: that the Oscar-winning actor was an unusual choice given that he portrayed a sketchy attorney operating out of, yes, a Lincoln Town Car in The Lincoln Lawyer

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Or that the campaign's first spots -- helmed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of 2011's Drive -- consist almost entirely of moody shots of McConaughey behind the wheel of Lincoln's MKC crossover SUV murmuring cryptic aphorisms ("Sometimes you gotta go back to actually move forward") in the style of his monologues as True Detective's Rust Cohle.

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But the campaign has people talking about Lincoln, a marque so moribund, Ford considered shuttering it before launching a billion-dollar reboot in 2012 that has brought new models, like the MKC, and flashy marketing to appeal to younger buyers. Lincoln sold 67,788 cars during the first nine months of 2014, a 13 percent increase from the 2013 period; MKC sales doubled after the car's introduction in May, to 1,763 units in September.

The McConaughey spots, meanwhile, in all their strangeness, have become cultural memes. Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O'Brien have aired elaborate parodies on their shows. In O'Brien's, McConaughey's voice is replaced by snippets of Cohle's Detective ramblings: "People out here, they don't even know the outside world exists. Might as well be living on the [bleep] moon. … The honorable thing for our species to do is stop reproducing."

In her takeoff, DeGeneres claims she was edited out of the ads -- she then is seen superimposed in the backseat, where she scarfs hash brownies and hectors McConaughey, who is transfixed by a bull blocking the road, to "mooove along." (DeGeneres' parody has generated more than 3.7 million YouTube views.)

Lincoln professes no regrets. David Rivers, the brand's marketing communications manager, tells THR, "We're extremely excited about the partnership and with the initial public reaction to the campaign." For as O'Brien shrugged: "What do I know? They think that's a good ad. I want that car."