GARFIELD;MERCEDES BENDS, USES QUIRKY HUMOR TO LURE BABY BOOMERS

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Fashion models. Designers. Extraterrestrials. Computer animation. Stampedes of giant horned beasts. Whatever else might be said about the eccentric new advertising from Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, for its big German luxury car client, one thing's for sure:

This is not your fatherland's Mercedes-Benz.

Once content to communicate uncompromising attention to engineering, Mercedes is in the midst of a demographic and cultural transformation. And no wonder. Over the past five years, the automaker has been repeatedly pummeled-by the recession, by the luxury tax, by the dollar/mark valuation and especially by the Japanese. Lexus and Infiniti have changed perceptions of what constitutes automotive luxury and prestige, and they have done so for an audience Mercedes all but ignored. And since that audience happens to be the baby boom generation, the most consuming demographic cluster in the history of commerce, there is a lot of catching up to do.

Mercedes now understands that its future, and a big part of its present, rests not on WASP country clubbers, Choate '46, but on diverse graduates of Howdy Doody, night law school and Acapulco gold. In other words, a vastly different sensibility. Take-it-or-leave-it declarations of Teutonic superiority no longer do the job.

But finding the right voice has been a struggle. For instance, last year's use of Janet Joplin's music-in support of the bourgeois trappings she soulfully rejected-was an unspeakable misappropriation of '60s iconography. Nothing so egregious this time around for the dramatically redesigned E-Class, but the agency is still pressing, trying too hard and creating advertising that is too hip by half.

One spot, about a spin down New York's 7th Avenue, features cameos from fashion designers Isaac Mizrahi, Bill Blass and Donna Karan, all admiring the sleek new Mercedes. The joke is that Karan first admires a construction worker's T-shirt, an apparent reference to the design preoccupations of DKNY. But how preposterously inside can you get? There are nine people who will get this joke, and they all live in Manhattan and seven of them don't own cars.

Another spot depicts three rosy-cheeked cupids in a lushly clouded sky, trying to help a Mercedes owner fall in love with his car. He already is, of course, but the point is obscured by the surpassing creepiness of the image. The cupids, who look like angelic-that is, dead-children, send a chill up the spine.

So what is being indulged here? The sensibilities of youthful luxury car buyers, or the vanity of agency creatives?

On the other hand, the humor and general quirkiness soften a brand image that badly needed it. One spot shows a Mercedes tooling down the road, and passing, in succession, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, three space aliens and Ed McMahon, brandishing an outsize check for $10 million. But, as Joe Mantegna's ironic voice-over puts it, "the new E-Class is so much fun to drive, what would you possibly want to stop for?"

Another puts the Mercedes in the morning rush hour-amid a stampede of computer-generated rhinos. When one rhino hits the driver door broadside, the exclusive side airbags kick in, because, Mantegna says, "Heaven knows, there are animals on these roads."

Ah ha! Elitist condescension! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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