In 1999, 10-year-old Micah Kanters and his mom headed down to Chicago from nearby Evanston so Kanters could audition for an upcoming Mazda commercial. This wasn’t exactly new territory for Kanters — he had previously appeared in an episode of ER and Early Edition as well as a few independent films — but when Mazda reps summoned him into the room, he realized he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to say the line they’d given him to prepare. The line itself was easy enough — “Zoom, zoom” — but should he chant it? Yell it at the top of his lungs? Emphasize the first zoom more than the second?
“I was completely unprepared, and there was no real guidance on how they wanted me to say it,” says Kanters. “It turns out I’d been saying it all wrong, because when I got in there, they were like, ‘It’s supposed to be like you’re telling a secret.’ And so I did it all on the fly.”
“Besides saying ‘zoom zoom,’ they also wanted us to dance to the theme song,” he continues. “I’m quite comfortable dancing, but it’s still a very awkward situation to be in a room with a bunch of strangers dancing like that.’”
When he was done, Kanters found his mom, drove back home and waited for the call. “I didn’t actually book the spot until they’d flown me out to California some time later,” he says. “We were waiting in the hotel lobby to go to what we thought was a second round of auditions, but they called my mom and said, ‘We’re just going to shoot it with both you and Dee Jay [Daniels], the other kid who was up for the role.’”
During the shoot, the spot’s director, Steven Ramser, attempted to coax the perfect “zoom zoom” out of him, which was complicated by Ramser’s Australian accent. “The way he’d tell me to say ‘zoom zoom’ was with his Australian accent, so what I’m saying isn’t actually ‘zoom zoom,’ it’s ‘zum zum,’” Kanters laughs. After reciting the line a few times, the young actor flew back home and waited, once again, to see if he made the cut.
“Lo and behold, the commercial came out in October 2000, and I was the one they picked,” Kanters says. In fact, Kanters ended up being the star of the commercial. “I had some sense that the ‘zoom zoom’ was going to be an important piece, but I didn’t know it was going to kick off the whole commercial,” he explains.
The campaign was a massive success. Within a year, more consumers associated “zoom zoom” with Mazda than its official tagline, “Get in. Be moved.” As such, in 2001, “Zoom-Zoom” became Mazda’s official slogan and the company’s first globally-unified marketing campaign, which meant more work for Kanters. In all, he shot two more Zoom-Zoom commercials, the last of which “they got me in front of a green screen, so for future shoots they could just kind of stick me in front of wherever they needed me to be.”
“The commercials were certainly a springboard to a higher degree of notoriety than I’d had before,” Kanters says, pointing to a Letterman bit about him. “I wouldn’t be recognized on the street or anything, but seeing how I was in middle school when it first came out, it didn’t take long for everybody to know about it, and for me to become that kid.”
Throughout middle school and into high school, Kanters’ classmates found great pleasure in reciting “zoom zoom” over and over again to him. “There’d be a lot of people asking me to say ‘zoom zoom,’ or coming up behind me and whispering it into my ear. It was a little incessant,” he says. “Being older with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear these were mostly just normal kid reactions, so I get it. But it’s not easy being the 11-year-old kid who hears ‘zoom zoom’ whispered into their ear 20 times a day.”
Worse yet, he adds, “There was some really weird stuff about me on the internet when the commercials first came out that wasn’t particularly pleasant for the 11-year-old me to read.” For instance, rumors abounded that Kanters was dead, or that he’d died on set.
Thankfully, the excitement around the Zoom-Zoom campaign began to wane as Kanters entered high school in 2006. “I’d gotten to a place where it wasn’t something that I brought up or wanted to be identified with for a number of years,” he tells me.
After enrolling at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a boarding school in suburban Chicago, he found solace in his newfound anonymity and decided to quit acting altogether. “I’d tested for a sitcom on ABC with John Ritter called 8 Simple Rules, which means I was one of two people left to audition in front of the executives,” Kanters says. “Had I gotten it, it would’ve completely changed the trajectory of my life. I would’ve moved to California and been on what ended up being a pretty popular TV show.”
But he didn’t get it, and he decided that was that. “By that point, I was just kind of done,” he explains. “It was never my intention to pursue acting as a profession. I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I’d be at shoots and people would ask, ‘So are you going to move to California and do this?’ and I’d be like, ‘No, I’m going to practice the law when I grow up.’”
Though Mazda would continue driving Zoom-Zoom into the ground for another decade, they eventually began phasing Kanters out of new commercials. “First they pulled me out and switched to the voice; then, a little while later, they changed the voice because they were finally like, ‘Let’s just get some other person to say ‘zoom zoom,’ we don’t need to keep paying this guy,’” he laughs.
At last, Kanters had finally freed himself from being the “Zoom-Zoom kid” — well, almost. “During introductions for a class in college, I put down that I was a child actor as one of my truths for ‘Two Truths and a Lie,’” he tells me. “Everyone thought it was the lie, and suddenly, I realized, ‘Oh God Micah, what the hell did you just do?’ It’d been so long since I talked about it, that I forgot how much I hated the attention it brought.”
For what it’s worth, Mazda, too, began to grow weary of Zoom-Zoom. After a decade of making it the centerpiece of the brand, Mazda’s overall awareness grew from 40 percent to 70 percent, but the car company became worried it was the only thing they were known for. And so, to better define their message and hopefully escape the Zoom-Zoom shadow, they launched the “Driving Matters” campaign in 2015. (Its most recent campaign, “Feel Alive,” is largely seen as yet another attempt to “veer away from its Zoom-Zoom heritage.”)
As for Kanters, the now 31-year-old lawyer has come back around to appreciating the impact Zoom-Zoom has had on his life. “In my professional career, it’s been a really fun fact,” he says. “So I enjoy talking to people about it now, especially because they usually get a kick out of it.”