July 24th, 2002

Mercedes Ad Looks Like Action Flick

By Erin White
Wall Street Journal

Moviegoers in Britain this week caught a film preview for a new Benicio Del
Toro action flick called "Lucky Star." Directed by Michael Mann, it’s
about an unbelievably lucky guy. Quick, pulse-pumping shots show him scoring
at the casino, impressing the ladies and driving a swanky Mercedes convertible.

When does the film debut? Don’t hold your breath. There’s no actual movie.
It’s a commercial for Mercedes.

The Mercedes "film" may be the furthest example yet of the ever-blurring
line between entertainment and advertising—and, some critics say, it may
be putting a further strain on truth in advertising. As consumers get better
at tuning out ads, marketers are trying even harder to get their message through
the clutter.

To launch its Xbox video-game player in Europe, Microsoft Corp. created a short
movie about the birth of a baby and e-mailed it to consumers. BMW, Mercedes’s
archrival, last year produced a series of short car-themed Internet-viewed "movies"
with such stars as Madonna and her film-director husband Guy Ritchie. The Victoria’s
Secret "fashion show" in the U.S. last fall was basically an hour-long
lingerie commercial on Walt Disney Co.’s ABC network.

But Mercedes has gone a step farther. There is virtually no way to tell in
the trailer that it is an ad for Mercedes, a subsidiary of Germany’s DaimlerChrysler
AG, Auburn Hills, Mich. It is convincing as a fast-paced movie preview involving,
as many action movies do, a number of car scenes. The spot doesn’t mention the
brand name.

Mercedes spent about GBP 5 million ($7.9 million) on the campaign. The auto
maker persuaded U.K. theater chains to run the spot in the trailer section of
movie previews, rather than among the ads. The company’s media-planning firm
for the campaign says Mercedes didn’t have to pay theater chains a premium rate
for the unusual placement. Indeed, the Mercedes film is even preceded by a message
that contains the usual trailer blurb: coming soon to a theater near you.

"It completely turns product placement on its head: Instead of putting
an ad into a film, we’re putting a film into an ad," says Richard Payne,
communications manager for Mercedes in the U.K. "What we’re trying to do
is cut through and be noticed."

Some media watchdogs object. As advertising becomes ever-more intrusive, "advertisers
are now having to do more product placement and more disguising of their advertising,
so it’s not surprising they’d want to create a fraudulent movie," says
Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert in the U.S., a nonprofit
organization founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader. "It shows the desperation
we’re seeing in the advertising industry." He thinks people will get fed
up with this approach. "It’s just going to drive people crazy."

People dazzled or curious enough about the fake movie can go to a Lucky Star
Web site that on the home page calls itself the "official film site."
Those diligent or interested enough to click away into the site are eventually
told that the trailer is for a film that doesn’t exist and that Mercedes is
behind it.

Otherwise, it is unclear whether people will even get the Mercedes connection.
The trailer doesn’t force the viewer to notice the car is a Mercedes. Mr. Payne
says a key part of the strategy is to reveal the trailer’s true origins through
word of mouth and media coverage. But that approach can be tricky because the
company hopes to be able to launch the ads in other markets, including the U.S.
—so the element of surprise could be lost through too much publicity.

Mercedes developed the campaign a few months ago after hiring a new U.K. ad
agency, a London shop called Campbell Doyle Dye. Some image consultants say
the Mercedes name has lost some of its luster as it has branched into lower-priced
cars. It also carries an older image than BMW. "This adds some dynamism
and excitement and youth to the brand," Mr. Payne says, although he doesn’t
think the brand’s sheen has dulled.

The agency and media-planning firm BJK&E, a subsidiary of London’s WPP
Group PLC, worked out the trailer-as-ad idea. Mercedes liked the notion. But
there was a similarity between the idea and something rival BMW had done a year
earlier. Last spring, BMW launched five five-to-seven minute films on a new
Web site called bmwfilms.com. The site was promoted with TV and print ads shot
to look like movie trailers, but which referred people to bmwfilms.com. The
link with BMW was clear, if not loud. In movie theaters, the spots ran among
the ads, not the movie trailers.

BMW, made by Germany-based Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, considered the campaign
such a success that it is planning to launch a new series of Internet films
this autumn. A spokeswoman for BMW declines to talk about the Mercedes ads,
saying she hasn’t seen them. "We wish them well," she said of Mercedes.

Mr. Payne is less demure. "We think this is slightly cleverer," he
says. "It’s blurring the lines between conventional marketing and the world
of film and art."

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