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For most of the past 700 or 800 years, Mercedes advertising has taken the high road. With almost religious devotion, it has cultivated an image of austere, precision-engineered luxury.

Which, for the past two years, Lowe & Partners/SMS has been trying to undo. Or, at least, to modify. The goal has been a more contemporary, relevant, youthful image at all costs-except, of course, the cost of cheapening the brand's pedigree. With the help of aggressive styling and an unprecedented expansion of the line, Lowe has had some successes. But some failures, as well.

The tone of youthful irreverence has come off occasionally as snideness. The willingness to break the mold has led to some gratuitous excesses-surprise for surprise's sake-announcing that the brand's attitude has changed, but in no way defining how that change was of interest to the luxury car buyer.

Maybe that's an important stage in brand-building (Nissan is going through just such an awkward adolescence right now) but in Mercedes' case we are relieved that it is over.

In the latest pool of spots, the advertising has found its voice, its style and its attitude by discovering at long last that they all reside ultimately in the meaning of the brand itself.

Mercedes' unique combination of luxury, performance, styling and heritage yields an equally unique combination of passion, prestige, romance and fun-a discovery Lowe has finally seen fit to share with consumers. The consequence is the finest car campaign on the air, and the best Mercedes advertising ever done.

The ads take on the brand attributes one at a time, with one quirky execution after another. The solutions are as surprising as the previous two years' work, but gone are the happy-go-lucky irrelevancies. Individually and as a group, these ads make trenchant, positive statements about the cars.

One, promoting the brand's sportier entries, begins with what looks to be a hackneyed reprise of the new-model "press conference" premise, but quickly shakes down to a '50s rock 'n' roll act, with a lip-curling Elvis type singing about the cars and a chorus of lab-coated engineers providing the doo-wops.

("Add the CLK to this classic group, 'cause man oh man what a beautiful coupe . . . ") This is about fun.

Point taken.

In another spot, about joy, a young couple motors in an SLK past fanciful singing birds, harmonizing wolves, leaping fish, an avuncular man in the moon and other corny images to the background of an equally corny country-western rendition of "Don't Fence Me In." It's self-consciously Pollyanna and all very arch, but this time no snideness about it. What it is, is charming. And . . . well, joyous.

The best of the five new spots also uses an old standard-"Falling in Love Again"-and it, too, plays off a Mercedes-ad cliche: the archival footage featuring the cars in races, rallies, assembly lines, driveways and winner's circles. Soon enough, though, you realize this isn't the usual. Every scene features the principals singing "Falling in Love Again." Produced with genuine historical footage, digitally matted, and new material shot with antique equipment, this magnificent achievement in special-effects understatement is an eloquent reminder of our enduring love affair with the car.

"Passion," the onscreen super reminds us. As if it needed to.

You take the high road. I'll take the Lowe road. And I'll be in the showroom

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