In BMW's wake, Mercedes in U.K. tries its own 'movie'

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The cry "Give me a BMW!" was heard in countless marketing departments and ad agencies after "The Hire," last year's online film series from BMW Films and Fallon, spawned such hype. Several "me-too" projects are now in various stages of development. There was, in particular, a rumor that Mercedes-Benz was stung by the cool cachet BMW acquired with "The Hire."

Cue Mercedes' first U.K. campaign from its new London agency, the start-up Campbell Doyle Dye. Arguably, it goes even further than BMW did in blurring the lines between art and commerce, and it caused a stir in the U.K. Do we applaud its creativity and chutzpah? Or worry about a consumer backlash?

First, here's the story. Over the July 4 weekend, a theatrical trailer broke in theaters and on TV promoting "Lucky Star," a movie from director Michael Mann ("The Insider," "Ali"). It stars Latin hunk Benicio del Toro as a man whose remarkable foresight allows him to clean up on the Chicago commodities exchange and at the baccarat tables.

In theaters, "Lucky Star" was the first of the trailers that precede the feature, immediately after the glossy cinema ads British audiences actually enjoy. But this is a movie 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."

It is an inversion of 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 relatively subtle) is "the thing"; plot, dialog and acting are adornments.

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

The theater audience knew what preceded the "Lucky Star" trailer was a string of commercials. That knowledge builds a certain degree of skepticism in the viewer. When the trailers begin, that skepticism falls away. Trailers function differently than commercials. "Lucky Star" the commercial catches the cinema-goer off guard.

Is this something to worry about? Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone thinks so. His belief that American audiences will not accept "the invasiveness" of cinema advertising inhibits that medium's growth in the U.S. The advertising-literate British consumer not only doesn't appear to mind but welcomes the idea-as long as it's "creative."

It's safe to say "Lucky Star" is about more than selling cars. If it weren't, advertising a $140,000-plus auto at the flicks would be wastage. Mercedes is clearly set on adding a contemporary edge to its illustrious brand.

And guess what? If there's enough interest, director Mann has an option to make a real movie based on the trailer for the fake movie that is actually a commercial. (Keep up!) Why not? Movies have been built on flimsier premises.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Creativity and Ad Age Global.

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