The evolution of how to sell the best or nothing: How does Mercedes-Benz sell luxury?

NOTE: Originally written August 9, 2016 for Deakin University: Advertising: Desire, Consumption and the Attention Economy. Repurposed for blog: dylanhornsby.com

Introduction

In a practical sense, a car is a form of transportation to get one to their destination but Mercedes-Benz has been offering more than just a car; they sell luxury vehicles. This paper will investigate four different advertisements from four different decades of Mercedes-Benz cars to examine how luxury is conceptualised and sold. The investigation will analysis the various key elements contained within each ad to discuss what they signify and how each element relates to one another.

Mercedes-Benz grew out of a partnership between German car companies Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, creator of the Mercedes, and Benz & Cie in 1926. (Mercedes-Benz, 2016) The brand grew out of Germany’s golden era of hope, a period where Germany’s arts and science flourished following economical stabilisation from the events of world war one. (BBC, 2014) The Mercedes-Benz brand is well known for its luxury cars and association with high culture and its ads provide a contextual reflection of class at the time.

1920s S Series Advertisement (Germany)

Luxury MB.png
(Mercedes-Benz n.d.)

Analysis of Elements

The Car

The car looks extravagant and expensive for its time with a chrome finishing, bright red rims and gold trimmings. This is reinforced by the passengers in the vehicle with their fur coat, suit and top hat who are also being driven by a private driver who would have been rare to find in Germany at this time with the reparation of world war one.

 

Text

The translation of Luxus from German is “Luxury” and its font matches this in a simple but elegant sans serif. The golden yellow colour not only matches the colour of the lights on the ship and car but can also be interpreted as a signifier of gold and wealth.

 

Passenger Liner

In the early 1900s, passenger liners were established as a luxury mode of transport. The ship in the ad is a symbolic sign of luxury transport and voyage of the time. The ship is shadow in black with only the lights and shape to guide the reader into understanding what it is. This has been done as to not bring attention to the passenger liner, as it is not the product been sold to the audience, but rather sell what the passenger liner stands for at the time: luxury.

 

Syntagm

The producers have chosen to have both the passenger liner and car in the ad to create an association between the two elements under the literal banner of “Luxury”. It takes the pre-existing notion of passenger liner as luxury transport and applies it to the car. It can also be argued that the positioning of the ship and the car in the isometric space puts the car not only in front in the foreground but also ahead of the ship as if they were racing. This can imply that the car is better than the ship, not in terms of speed, but rather how luxurious it is.

Understanding of the advertisement

Overall, the intended message in the ad is to market Mercedes-Benz as a luxury vehicle brand. The message could be misinterpreted if one was to associate the passenger liner with the tragedy of the Titanic that while luxurious it will not go far. The target market is the characters shown riding the car: the upper class and wealthy who can afford to and prefer to travel in luxury.

 

1955 190 SL Advertisement (Germany)

Mercedes-Benz-SL-1988M1325.jpg
(Davis, 2012)

Analysis of Elements

The Car

Similarly, to the 1920s ad, this car demonstrates a luxury car of the time with chrome rims and finish as well as an open top convertible. Furthermore, the passengers are a man wearing a driving cap and brown jacket, and a woman with a styled haircut, fashionable glasses and a jacket like the car represent the high class and trends of the time. The iconic badge of the three pointed star signifies the brand Mercedes-Benz – notice the lack of text in this ad – perhaps exaggerated to stand out more. This is most likely due to Mercedes-Benz’s establishment since the 1920s.

 

The Brush Strokes

The brush stroke water paint style of the ad creates movement in a still image. The technique of using horizontal strokes around the car and horses juxtaposed against the vertical strokes of the woods and background signifies speed and movement from the car and horse alike. The back of the woods can symbolise open roads and nature – a place away where there is freedom on the road and in life. (Wharton, 2014 pp. 127)

 

Horses & Syntagm

Again like the 1920s ad, the producers have used comparison this time to associate the car with racing horses where the horses symbolise speed. Due to the position of this ad, not only again is the car in the foreground but it is also further to the left than the horses. This gives the audience the impression that the car is faster than racing horses and accelerates the cars association with speed. It could be suggested that the horse running towards the woods could also symbolise the returning of the domestic, trained horse, back to nature.

 

Understanding of the advertisement

The dominate reading of this ad is that Mercedes-Benz will give its audience speed and freedom. The target market appears to be those of whom are seeking adventure, speed and liberation from civil life. Furthermore, the people in the car indicate that this target market is fashionable and trendy, and most likely from a higher class.

 

Early 1970s 280se (United Kingdom – ‘Car’ Magazine)

HISTORIE_Retrospektive-einer-Werbebotschaft_10.jpg
(HobbyDB, n.d.)

Do you value quality and comfort as much as beauty and speed?

Would you rather have a safe car and no dream than a dream car without safety?

Can you wait 6 or more years until your car gets old?

Do you expect more peace and quiet in your car than you get at home?

Can you look nonchalant when people turn and state at your car?

Analysis of Elements

The Car

Similarly, to the previous ads, the car is of a light metallic shade with chrome trimmings. Precious metals like gold and silver have been attributed to wealth and have been used as currency. The use of metallic colours, as opposed to the mysteriousness of black or the vibrant feelings of orange, adds to the ideas of association between Mercedes-Benz and wealth. (Elliot, 2015) The isolation on empty road brings attention to the car in its usual busy natural environment and creates the myth that the car presented is special. (Wharton, 2014, pp. 123)

 

The Three Pointed Star

The iconic three-point star is once again prominent in the ad not only on the car but also larger yet in the bottom right hand corner where it is actually larger than the “Mercedes-Benz” texts above it. This suggests that the star is now as recognisable as the brand itself.

 

The Questions

The ad is bold in asking its reader to answer questions to whether or not they qualify to be a Mercedes-Benz driver. The questions are a reflection on how the brand sees itself: Mercedes-Benz manufactures quality, comfortable, beautiful, speedy cars that are safe, have longevity, run quiet and will make heads turn. The brand is not only selling to logical side with the product features (e.g. safe, comfortable, fast, quiet) but also to emotive side with their last question “Can you look nonchalant when people turn and state at your car?” i.e. do you want people to see you when they turn their heads?

 

The Man

While the questions denote the ideal characteristics of a Mercedes-Benz driver, the man in suit shown above them symbolises what a Mercedes-Benz driver looks like: strong, powerful, confident and sophisticated; just like their cars. By only including the man and the car in the ad like the previous ads from the 1920s and 1955 an association is made between the two. The man in the suit leans on the car confidentially standing in a power pose. His classic black suit with a white shirt and pocket square connotes the man to be one of class and sophistication.

 

Understanding of the advertisement

While anyone may read this ad in the magazine they are reading, it has been designed to qualify its own market. However, the man in the suit implies a certain image of a Mercedes-Benz driver and its ideal target market. Therefore, there is going to be oppositional readings of people who will be alienated from the questions and may not relate to the man in the ad. These oppositional people may realise that they will never own a Mercedes-Benz – a loss for Mercedes-Benz that was never there to be lost anyway. The message of the ad is somewhat pretentious by ultimately asking the reader if they are eligible to be a Mercedes-Benz driver.

 

C-Class 2014 TV Commercial (South Africa – YouTube)

n.b. this was originally written about the South African version of this ad (no longer available on YouTube) with small differences between the voice over and the lead male has been substituted for a white male in this version.

 

Analysis of the Elements

The People

Throughout the ad, there are a range of different archetypes, races and a balance of gender. Vinjamuri (2015) argues that this diversity is a basic marketing principle of where the ad is able to relate to larger audience. However, it can also be argued that changes within the cultural sphere have toned down the traditional dominance of the white male with greater opportunities and emphasis on equality and diversity. Despite this, the ad is very misogynist by including women as part of the experienced fantasy.

 

The Locations

All of the locations shown, expect for the open field shot at the end, show areas of wealth such as the inner city correlating to the business district and the palm tree lined roads associated with the rich streets of Beverly Hills. The open field symbolises the freedom that can be obtained from having a car.

 

The Cars

For a majority of the ad the car is once again shown in silver but is also shown in a shot as black and another shot as white. Arguably, the theme of class and wealth is preserved by choosing these two shades that match the businessman’s suit and shirt. Black may also emphasis mystery while white can represent pureness. (Elliot, 2015) Like the previous ads the car shown isolated on the road, Wharton (2014, pp. 129) describes this phenomenon as “the fantasy of complete individual control and total liberation secession from the social and public spaces of city life”.

 

The German voice over

As Mercedes-Benz is a German brand it should be no surprise that the voice of it is German. By using such a voice, it reiterates the brand’s iconic heritage as well as symbolising a foreign and exotic quality.

 

Understanding of the advertisement

The 30 second ad delivers itself as film: an alternate fictional world where desires, dreams and fantasies come to life. The ads opening lines the it could be set in Cape Town or Paris implies that despite it being made by Mercedes-Benz in South Africa that its audience, reflecting its context of being uploaded onto YouTube, implies that its audience is not locked to a particular geography.

The order in which they list who could be in the lead role or ‘the driver’ is important. By listing the actress as the potential lead first, the ad becomes self-aware before being able to ground itself with the family man and the businessman – all while still in the dreamscape. Each of these three who are potential drivers are of wealthy backgrounds – even the family man symbolises wealth with himself wearing a skivvy and sports jacket while his young son in the backseat is wearing a jacket and button up shirt as oppose to the idea of a casual attired middle class family. Like the previous ads this implies an image of the types of Mercedes-Benz drivers and hence a reflection of its target audience.

It can be argued that the message of the ad that fantasies can come true with a Mercedes-Benz. Furthermore, the taglines ‘The best knows no alternative’ combines the use of repetition of ‘C-Class’ in the voiceover and a twist on the iconic tagline ‘The Best or Nothing’ advocates that Mercedes-Benz signifies the best and is the idea of a dream car. However, as the ad projects this fantasy through the gaze and voice of a man, this message may be met with oppositional discourse from those of whom do not fit within the stereotypical heterosexual male ideology.

 

Cultural Understanding and Context of Advertisements

Each ad shows a particular type of person driving, riding, or standing next to the vehicle, implying ownership, from each of the decades and implicitly asks the audiences if they can see themselves embodied as or relating to the driver. The common trait of these represented people is that they come from wealth and the brand has been able associate itself with the luxury of wealth.

Mercedes-Benz capitalises on maintaining an understanding of societal classes. The changes in the represented people in the example ads reflects the shifts in higher class society over the decades. For example, the 1920s ad shows a man in top hat and suit with a woman in a fur while the 1955 ad shows a man in a driver cap and a jacket and a woman in a jacket and sunglasses – a stark change in popular fashion and representation of high class in Europe as well as their leisurely activities.

Between the 1955 and the early 1970s ads, safety in the car industry had become an important factor with implementation of the United Nation’s World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (UNECE, n.d.). In the 1970s Mercedes-Benz made developments in car safety that are staples in modern cars e.g. electronic anti-lock braking system and driver’s air bag. Likewise, while the 1955 ad focuses on speed and freedom, the 1970s ad introduces the idea of safety versus the dream car into the equation. (Allianz, 2013)

By the final ad in 2014, it is easy to look back at how advertising has developed with technology and how it has been shaped. For example, despite the ad been made in South Africa, the first thing the ad suggest is that it could take place which in the context of being uploaded onto YouTube reflects the globalisation of markets. This may also explain the choice of diversity in the ad as well.

Conclusion

Over the decades, Mercedes-Benz sports sedans have constantly maintained their association with class and wealth. This analysis has not even looked at the financial barrier of entry to own a Mercedes-Benz vehicle and the point above is still clear from its advertising alone. Through the use of its representation of higher society and use of elements, Mercedes-Benz has been able to market itself as a luxury brand while creating a culture that positions itself as the best or nothing.

 

References:

Allianz 2013, Evolution of car safety, Allianz, retrieved 5 August 2016, https://www.allianz.com.au/car-insurance/news/evolution-of-car-safety

BBC n.d. How did the Weimar Republic survive?, BBC, retrieved 2 August 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/mwh/germany/weimarsurviverev1.shtml

Davis, J 2012, Mercedes-Benz SL Advertising History, eMercedes-Benz, retrieved 2 August 2016, http://www.emercedesbenz.com/autos/mercedes-benz/sl-class/mercedes-benz-sl-advertising-history/attachment/mercedes-benz-sl-1988m1325/#gallery

Elliot, H 2015, What the Color of Your Luxury Car Says About You and Your Taste, Bloomberg, retrieved 5 August 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-12/what-the-color-of-your-luxury-car-says-about-you-and-your-taste

HobbyDB, n.d. Please Answer These 5 Questions Before you Buy A Mercedes-Benz Print Ads, HobbDB, retrieved 2 August 2016, https://hobbydb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/processed_uploads/catalog_item_photo/catalog_item_photo/image/119406/Please_Answer_These_5_Questions_Before_You_Buy_A_Mercedes-Benz_Print_Ads_a9569b8f-73fc-4885-8834-6062f483b2ce.jpg

Mercedes-Benz, 2016, The Origins, Mercedes-Benz, retrieved 2 August 2016, http://www.mercedes-benz.com.au/content/australia/mpc/mpc_australia__website/en/home_mpc/passengercars/home/passenger_cars_world/heritage/beginnings.0006.html

Mercedes-Benz n.d. Retrospective on an advertising message, Mercedes-Benz, retrieved 1 August 2016, https://www.mercedes-benz.com/en/mercedes-benz/classic/retrospective-on-an-advertising-message/

Mercedes-Benz South Africa, 2014 Mercedes-Benz C-Class TV Commercial, Online Video, 9 May 2014, retrieved 2 August 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gv6B0OZEA_c. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gv6B0OZEA_c UNECE, n.d. WP.29 – Introduction,

UNECE, retrieved 7 August 2016 http://www.unece.org/trans/main/wp29/introduction.html Vinjamuri, D 2015 Diversity In Advertising Is Good Marketing,

Forbes, retrieved 7 August 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2015/12/11/diversityinadsisgoodmarketing/

Wharton, C 2014 ‘Texts’ in C Wharton, Advertising Critical Approaches, Taylor & Francis, pp. 112 – 127, retrieved 27 July 2016, EBSCO

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