Super Bowl LI: “Easy Rider” becomes Mercedes-Benz “Easy Driver”

Introduction

Mercedes-Benz’ advertising agency, Merkley and Partners, faced a difficult challenge in altering the public opinion of Mercedes-Benz cars through their Super Bowl ad. According to the Consumer Reports National Research Center (2014), Mercedes ranked seventh in the car market for overall brand perception and did not rank for performance. Consumers had a lackluster perception of the brand and thought its cars to be weak, un-sporty, and limited in its capabilities. Given these consumer rankings, Merkley and Partners had to work against a considerable amount of inertia, or society’s resistance to the change of ideas due to pre-existing and persisting perceptions, history, and traditions (Bernays, 1928). To reverse this enduring perception of Mercedes, Merkley and Partners attempted to sway public opinion of their car’s performance by creating a Super Bowl ad that pays homage to the 1969 film, Easy Rider. In this paper, I illustrate that the Mercedes ad closes the gap between entertainment and advertising, places themes of power, strength, and masculinity at its core, and appeals to the consumer consciousness of male Baby Boomers to improve the image of the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster.  Throughout my sociological inquiry, I draw on the theories of Matthew McAllister, Albert Muniz and Thomas O’Guinn, Edward Bernays, and Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood.

Close reading of “Easy Driver”

Before diving into the sociological analysis of “Easy Driver,” a close reading of the one-minute ad, filled with important details, is needed. The ad is set in a crowded, seedy bar filled with a gang of aging bikers. To begin the ad, an old man with graying hair puts on his reading glasses as he bends over to examine a jukebox. He chooses the jukebox’s only option: Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” an iconic, biker gang anthem. The blast of electric rock music sets off a montage of various aging bikers whom are overweight, have long grey hair, and are not as tough as they used to be in their youthful glory days. Two tattooed men growl at each other while arm wrestling until one of them attempts to head-butt the other, only to knock himself out on impact. Two other bikers happily reunite in a cheer, but as they back away from their embrace, their large silver, chain necklaces become tangled, and they slam into each other’s faces, resulting in a physical fight. Another old man pumps his fist in the air to Steppenwolf’s beat until a crack is heard and he clutches his shoulder in pain (Mercedes-Benz USA, 2017).

Amidst the chaos, a man walks into the bar and says forebodingly, “Blocked in.” The music stops abruptly, and everyone exclaims their shock and fear. The bikers rush outside of the old bar to see a sleek, dark grey Mercedes convertible parked in front of a row of motorcycles. Peter Fonda, the star of the 1969 film, Easy Rider, appears as an old, fit man with slicked hair, dark shades, and all-black leather, and he slowly saunters toward his Mercedes as the bikers look at him with expressions of awe and shock.  As he gets into his car, he exclaims, “Nice rides.” An older woman amongst the bikers utters, “Still lookin’ good,” and a man next to her looks down at his bicep, comparing its size to that of Peter Fonda.  As he presses the car’s start button, “Born to be Wild” blares again, and the engine revs, rattling even the beer glasses in the bar. The Mercedes speeds off into the desert on Route 66, and the phrase “Born to be wild” appears on screen before turning into “Built to be wild.” Peter Fonda flashes a peace sign at the camera and speeds away, and the ad ends with the name of the car: “The Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster” (Mercedes-Benz USA, 2017).

Commercialization of American culture

Up until the last few moments of the advertisement, the ad seemed to have the quality of a short movie rather than a commercial. Because the Super Bowl, including its halftime and commercials, has been given so much social attention and has caused such lively and extensive discourses, it has become an event that celebrates advertising as a type of entertainment, closing the gap between the entertainment industry and the advertising industry (McAllister, 1999). Super Bowl ads are no longer valued for the extent to which they convince viewers to buy the product; instead, they are judged for their entertainment value. Thus, Merkley and Partners had to create not simply a commercial, but a “film,” which would entertain and enthrall viewers (Mercedes-Benz, 2017). To do so, they hired experts from the entertainment industry, The Coen Brothers, who are famed film directors known for movies such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit (Brown, 2017). The film was not only directed by hot-shot movie directors, but it also mimicked the 1969 movie, Easy Rider, in which Fonda plays a young biker nicknamed, “Captain America,” who sells large amounts of cocaine in the American south. The decisions to hire film directors and to base the ad on a film reflect the broad commercialization of American culture; in this case, Mercedes commercialized cultural actors from the movie industry.

A Masculine Sports Car

Because brands are “vessels of popular meaning,” (O’Guinn and Muniz, 2008:135) Merkley and Partners, along with the Coen Brothers, packed the one-minute ad with iconic imagery, narratives, and details that load the Mercedes brand with meanings of power, strength, and masculinity. The ad emasculates the biker gang members, who all ride motorcycles, and sets them in contrast to the glorification of Peter Fonda, who drives a Mercedes. For example, while bikers have often been thought of as the height of masculinity, the ad’s aging bikers attempt to display their hyper-masculinity in the bar but end up seeming inept and clumsy. When Fonda arrives, he appears polished and confident, and he holds a powerful captivation of the subordinate biker gang. The woman who exclaims, “Still lookin’ good,” reveals that before Fonda matured and became a Mercedes-driver, he perhaps used to be part of the biker gang and was –and still is– an attractive lady’s man. The hint at his sex appeal and prowess contributes to the notion of Fonda’s masculinity. Additionally, the puzzled man who glances at his own bicep implies that Fonda makes other men question their own strength. What’s more, the bar that the bikers are occupying is even called “Tiny’s,” a not-so-subtle phallic reference that creates an obvious comparison of masculinity between the bikers and Fonda. The striking, powerful presence of Fonda, coupled with the roaring engine of the speedy Mercedes creates an association between Fonda’s strength and power, and that of the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster. On the grand Super Bowl stage, an epicenter for performances of masculinity, the ad defined Mercedes as a powerful, masculine, and “wild” sports car brand.

The Male Baby Boomer Consciousness

Merkley and Partners not only highlighted Mercedes’ performance, but they did so in a way that appealed to consumers’ collective consciousness, or a common ideology or sentiment shared by a segment of consumers (Bernays, 1928). In general, consumers have the common ideology that the type of car that one drives says something about one’s personality and values; one’s car is a signifier for social meanings, which people conflate with drivers’ morals and personalities. Advertising serves the purpose of what Douglas and Isherwood (1979:43) call “fixing public meanings,” or categorizing goods into different types of lifestyles and cultures; for, consumers purchase goods in order to define themselves in relation to others and to maintain social meanings.

With knowledge of the role of cars in relational meaning-making, Merkley and Partners tailored their message to the target market of male Baby Boomers. Since the ad is based on a 1969 movie and its star is an old male, the ad is relatable and appeals largely to men older than sixty. By drawing on cultural knowledge that rests in Baby Boomers’ collective memory and by having an aging, male protagonist, the message of the Mercedes brand becomes especially salient for older males. Most aging men likely realize that their strength is deteriorating, and so, they likely desire to be as impressive and powerful as they were in their youth. Therefore, by playing up Fonda’s masculinity and power, the ad fixes Mercedes cars as the solution for aging men to publicly assert their virility and masculinity to others. With knowledge and analysis of male Baby Boomers’ motives and collective consciousness, Merkley and Partners took measures to manipulate consumers’ beliefs about the brand and to define Mercedes as a powerful sports car.

Conclusion

Through my sociological analysis of “Easy Driver,” is seems clear that Merkley and Partners took many of the necessary steps to make the Mercedes ad effective. They hired movie directors to create an entertaining film that appropriated American culture, made Mercedes an icon of masculinity and power through association with Fonda’s commanding presence, and fit the ad to male Baby Boomers’ collective consciousness. Even the title of the ad indicates that Peter Fonda was once an easy rider but has now taken control as the easy driver. Despite these measures, the ad did not receive much attention in the discourse following the Super Bowl. Perhaps the ad was too narrowly targeted or was not dramatic enough. Nonetheless, regardless of the adherence to theorists’ recipes for advertising success, the ad has yet to see be evidence that “Easy Driver” influenced the public opinion of the Mercedes brand and its level of performance.

Written for: 

References

Bernays, Edward L. 1928. “Manipulating Public Opinion.” University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Maury. 2017. “Mercedes-Benz Taps Coen Brothers For Super Bowl Ad Featuring Peter Fonda.” Retrieved on February 9, 2017.(http://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2017/01/27/mercedes-benz-taps-coen-brothers-for-super-bowl-ad-featuring-peter-fonda/#73fdee722eee)

Consumer Reports. 2014. “2014 Car-Brand Perception Survey.” Retrieved on February 9, 2017. (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2014/02/2014-car-brand-perception-survey/index.htm)

Douglas, Mary, and Baron Isherwood. 1979. “The World of Goods: Toward an Anthropology of Consumption.” New York City: Basic Books.

McAllister, Matthew P. 1999. “Super Bowl Advertising as Commercial Celebration.” The Communication Review. Vol. 3(4): pp.403-428.

Mercedes-Benz USA. 2017. “Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster Commercial ‘Easy Driver’ – Directed by The Coen Brothers.” Retrieved February 7, 2017 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvHFM8c7cPM)

Mercedes-Benz. 2017. “Built to be wild: The Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster in Easy Driver.” Retrieved on February 10, 2017. (https://www.mercedes-benz.com/en/mercedes-benz/vehicles/passenger-cars/amg-gt/built-to-be-wild-the-mercedes-amg-gt-c-roadster-in-easy-driver/)

O’Guinn, Thomas C. and Albert M. Muniz. 2008. “Towards a Sociological Model of Brands.” In Contemporary Perspectives in Branding Research.

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