Mercedes sells joie de vivre (as well as some pricey cars)

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Our late boss, dear friend and noted cheapskate Dennis Chase used to tell the story about a beggar, sitting by a subway entrance on a May morning, with an empty cup in front of him and a cardboard sign: "I am blind."

A passing copywriter stopped. "Excuse me," he inquired, "would you mind if I add a little something to your sign?"

The beggar assented. Later, when the ad man passed the same location, the cup overflowed with coins and banknotes. He smiled in satisfaction at the altered sign, which now read: "It is spring and I am blind."

Dennis always beamed at this point -- with the same expression of beatitude he wore when giving a cab driver a 50› tip -- and bestowed the moral of the fable: "The power of advertising."

He wasn't wrong. Every now and then, a campaign materializes that does not squander the vast potential power of advertising. One fine example is "You deserve a break today," McDonald's positioning of fast-food as a modest self-indulgence for the hard working. An even better example -- in fact, the greatest -- is the Marlboro cowboy, that phenomenal boon to Philip Morris and oncologists everywhere. The "sophisticated" brand became the "rugged individualist brand," changing the landscape -- literally -- all over the world for four decades.

In the past five years, on a smaller scale, the same thing has been happening in the U.S. for Mercedes-Benz. Credit first Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, and now the successor agency, Merkley Newman Harty. They have taken an expensive, austere, cold, hard, Teutonic badge of sexless success and transformed it into a youthful, sleek, vivid, joyous expression of passion and the participatory high life. Mercedes used to be the shining recognition that you'd become so rich you no longer required nerve endings.

It wasn't an automobile. It was a plaque.

That's all changed. It still isn't an automobile; it's a car.

The crowning glory of the transformation, to date, had been Lowe's "Falling in Love Again" 60-second spot, which digitally created a cinematic Mercedes timeline to the throaty Marlene Dietrich on 78 rpm. That pool of spots, after two years of redefining the brand, finally sold the idea of Mercedes as synonymous with automotive passion. There was but one step left to take. Now Merkley has taken it.

One of three spots in the charming campaign for the re-launched C-Class opens in a doctor's office, where a frightened 35-year-old braces for what apparently is grim news.

"What is it?" the patient asks.

"I don't know quite how to tell you this," the physician replies, "but you've got only 40 years left to live. Maybe 45. Fifty tops. You might want to get your things in order."

A death sentence, albeit a distant one. Still, as the music kicks in -- the bouncy "Enjoy Yourself" from the English ska band, The Specials -- the young man embraces the cliche. In his dwindling remaining decades, he will live and live large. He rides a merry-go-round. Blows bubbles. Kisses a stranger. Dives, fully clothed, off of a pier. In short, he lets it all hang out, as the music bounces along:

Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think.

Enjoy yourself. While you're still in the pink.

Your years go by, as quickly as you blink.

Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself.

It's later than you think.

The genius of this arch take on the hedonism of the condemned is not that it equates the C-Class with fun. It's that it equates the C-Class with the pleasure of life itself, permitting you to indulge yourself, because life is too short for self-denial. It's "You deserve a break today," only the Big Mac costs $30,000.

We ourselves can't help but wonder how this would have struck our friend Dennis. He made good dough, but he drove a 1902 Corolla with 40 million miles on it, because it still ran. He saved money, for all the good it did him, and it's hard to imagine any force in the universe overcoming his native thriftiness.

Unless, possibly: the power of advertising.

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