Mercedes Does a BMW

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The cry "give me a BMW" was heard in countless marketing departments and ad agencies after last year's iconoclastic "The Hire" campaign spawned such hype.

Several such "me-too" projects are in various stages of development. Some are from predictable sources like car manufacturers, others less so: gin? Chocolate? There was a rumor that Mercedes, in particular, had been stung by the cool cachet BMW acquired.

Cue Mercedes' first UK campaign from its new London agency, the start-up Campbell Doyle Dye. Arguably, it goes even further than BMW in blurring the lines between art and commerce, entertainment and advertising, Hollywood and Madison Avenue. It has caused a stir in the UK. But, do we applaud its creativity and chutzpah, or worry about a potential consumer backlash?

First, the story. Over the July 4 weekend, a trailer broke promoting an upcoming movie "Lucky Star", from director, Michael Mann (The Insider, Ali), and starring Latin hunk, Benicio del Toro, as a man whose remarkable foresight allows him to clean up on the Chicago Commodities Exchange and at the bacarrat tables. (Click here to read AdCritic's original report on the campaign.)

In a real coup for CDD, "Lucky Star" was placed first in the series of trailers that precede the movie, immediately after the glossy cinema commercials that British movie theater audiences actually enjoy. Only this is a move trailer with a difference: there is no movie.

The trailer is actually a commercial for the new Mercedes 500 SL, which del Toro's Mr H character drives around Chicago while being chased by the authorities. The Mercedes is seen but not mentioned. And thereby "Lucky Star" goes further than even "The Hire".

The trailer is an inversion of traditional product placement. Once, the entertainment product (the movie) was the central element. Producers could adorn it with commercial messages through product placement. In "Lucky Star" the commercial message (albeit a relatively subtle one) is "the thing"; the plot, dialog, and acting are adornments.

With "The Hire" we were asked to suspend disbelief only once we went consciously to BMW Films.com to view the mini-movies. "Lucky Star" inhabits a different cerebral space.

We know that what preceded the trailer were commercials. This builds in a certain degree of skepticism about them. When the trailers begin, that skepticism falls away. Trailers function differently than commercials. They work on a captive audience's pre-disposition to make future choices, like a restaurant menu. "Lucky Star" catches the cinema-goer off guard.

Is this something to worry about? Some powerful figures like Viacom's Sumner Redstone think so. Redstone's belief that American audiences will not accept "the invasiveness" of cinema advertising inhibits that medium's growth here. The advertising-literate British consumer not only doesn't appear to mind, but welcomes the idea, as long as it's "creative".

We shall revisit "Lucky Star". Safe to say, the exercise was about more than shifting metal. If it were, advertising a $140,000-plus automobile at the flicks would be a by-word for wastage. Mercedes is clearly set on adding a contemporary edge to its already lustrous brand.

But guess what? If there's enough interest, Mann (who, curiously, directed "Lucky Star" through Anonymous, which produced "The Hire") has optioned a real movie of the trailer of the fake movie that is actually a commercial (keep up!). And, why not? Movies have been built on flimsier premises.

(Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Creativity and Ad Age Global. This column appears in the July 22 issue of Advertising Age.)

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