Barbara Lippert’s Critique

It’s fitting that this Mercedes-Benz image campaign is appearing on the Academy Awards: One of the commercials is a nostalgic tribute that begins and ends at a movie studio; another is a black-and-white parody of the classic noir thriller Key Largo. And three of the four image spots (there are also 14 regional spots) are the work of boy-wonder action shooter Michael Bay, who five years or so after winning the Grand Prix at Cannes for directing “Got milk?” was sending oil drillers into space in Arma geddon, following that with the megabudget Pearl Harbor.

All the spots sport a genuinely elevated visual style and a burnished glow. But the best of them rejects cinematic snazziness for a simple, funny selling idea: that the G-class SUV is so different from other cars, and so powerful, that in a mock crash test, the vehicle drives through the target wall, into an adjoining office and clear outside the building. It’s 30 seconds, and direct, effective and funny (the rest are 60 seconds).

By comparison, the intended show-stopper, “Timeless Ride,” comes off as overdone and inauthentic. Promoting the launch of the fab 2003 SL500, it’s a major historical extravaganza—à la the Super Bowl spots from Pepsi and Cad illac—to show how the brand is embedded in our cultural memories. Starting from the late ’50s, we see each of the five generations of the SL. But the emotion/memory approach doesn’t work so well with an import: Merce des has many superior qualities to promote, but the nostalgia factor isn’t there to milk.

“Unchained Mel ody”—”O-oh, mah love, mah darlin’ …”—plays as a starlet, a Grace Kelly type in a scarf and sunglasses, gets into her SL coupe and drives out of the “Paromar Pictures” lot. The song then gets tweaked to match the passing dec ades. It seems like a bad joke when the famous hood ornament is turned into a peace sign, with a Carnaby Street-like backdrop filled with Twiggy look-alikes. For the ’70s, there’s longer hair and hippier looks, and the ’80s involve Dur an Duran clones. The tagline is, “Timeless. Un like any other.”

No matter how great the camera angles, production details and edits (and they are great), they can’t do much for what look essentially like waxworks clichés of each age. There’s no connection between us and the car, or between the car and what’s happening in the street.

There’s some humor in “Sanctuary,” the other spot with movie references, and that saves it. Mom, Dad, Gramps and “Little Princess” sit in a living room in a stormy tropical resort town. The stilted dialogue is pretty funny. “Seems like the storm’s getting closer,” says the wife. “That’s right, Little Kitten,” hubby replies. “Don’t be scared.” Naturally, it swooshes through the window, and they run for cover—into their swank, contemporary M-class vehicle, parked right outside their Vic torian home. This time the line is, “Security. Unlike any other.” And it makes the point.

The fourth spot, “Reincarnation,” carries the tagline, “Soul. Unlike any other.” This soul thing seems to be the new anti-Enron trend: In Ford’s new campaign, CEO Bill (great-grand son of Henry) says, “We’re not just another nameless, faceless company. We’re a company with soul.”

A Mercedes C-class is in the pincers, about to get crushed. But before the car can meet its maker, its life flashes before its windshield eyes: a young couple buys it, children climb on the hood, teens make out in the front seat, etc. I was hoping some guy from Darien, Conn., who likes diesel-spewing vintage cars would come and tow it to his compound. But, inev it ably, the car enters a tunnel and sees the white light, and we get a shot of a new one rolling off the assembly line.

“The outside may change, but the soul remains the same.” The new car looks great, but why bother with this exercise in death? Altogether, it’s kind of creepy.

The campaign intends to capitalize on the emotional associations Americans have with Mercedes. But the best spots are the ones that are the least self-conscious and don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a lesson for Oscar night