Mercedes just nearly achieves perfection

By Published on .

Marketer: Mercedes-Benz USA
Agency: Merkley Newman Harty, New York
Rating: Three stars

Almost magic.

That's what one of the commercials is about in the Merkley Newman Harty debut on the Mercedes-Benz account. The 60-second spot shows a series of transcendent images corrupted by one detail or another. It opens with historical footage of immigrants steaming into New York Harbor and beholding, in all its majesty, the statue of . . . Big Boy.

Incongruous, and funny. Likewise the sight of '70s TV cop Kojak, chewing on a lollipop, with a digitally enhanced full head of hair; Rhett Butler, exclaiming, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a hoot"; Mona Lisa with a big toothy grin, and so on.

Then a pair of reverse-type title cards: "Change one thing and it's just not the same. But if every part is exactly right . . . magic."

That's for sure. Not content merely to state the point, this commercial is the point.

Like all but one of the seven spots in this campaign, "Magic" flirts with magic but ultimately is maddeningly imperfect. Seldom have so many strong ideas and delightful moments been so compromised by so many careless or clunky or confusing elements. Greatness thus is diminished into mere goodness--which is unfortunate when you're selling, at an enormous premium, the difference between goodness and greatness.

The specific problem with "Magic" is that it drags through too many puckish surprises to get to the message, itself awkwardly stated. "Change one thing and it's just not the same . . ." That's mushy writing, difficult to understand at all, much less as a clear reason to spend $60,000 for a car.

Then there's a spot called "Pride," which whimsically dramatizes Mercedes employee dedication. One guy, in a business suit, is buffeted in a wind tunnel. A gorgeous exec runs the slalom, on foot, in high heels. Another guy is outfitted as a human test-crash dummy and sent barreling into a wall. When his head is extricated he has a goofy, cockeyed grin. "I'm good!" he says, thumbs up. "Good. Good. Good."

Wonderful, actually. But however fetchingly ridiculous, the fetching is trumped by the ridiculous. It's all just too hyperbolic to truly communicate corporate pride.

A spot called "Service," on the other hand, trades marvelously on the overwrought music and expressions of corporate fealty. Along the way to detailing Mercedes' after-the-sale attentiveness, it's cast just eccentrically right and overdone in just the right way. But the kicker--a slight joke ending in the slight vulgarity "You're screwed"--is too weak to justify the off-color punchline.

One called "Value" cleverly cites Babe Ruth's acquisition at $165,000 and Seward's 2¢-per-acre Alaska "folly" to say that what seems expensive at purchase may actually be a tremendous bargain. A third example: the first computer cost $487,000. But wait. Compared to the cost of a computer today it seems preposterously high. Yeah, yeah, the industry is worth billions, but the ambiguity is irritating--once again, a powerful concept compromised by clunky execution.

Only one spot is flawless. It's about a motorcycle gang member and his doll, finding themselves surrounded on the road by a large Mercedes fleet.

"Baby," the frightened girlfriend says, "what do you think they want?"

"I don't know," the tough guy nervously replies. "Just don't look at them."

The spot is titled "Badness." But alone in this campaign, it is greatness.

Copyright September 1999, Crain Communications Inc. ; ;

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