Super Bowl ads this 2017 year range from the fun to the sublime. Mercedes’ Super Bowl commercial, called “Easy Driver,” was created by the ever-clever Joel and Ethan Coen brother team, who are known for their pointed and enduring humor. With Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” as background music and a cameo appearance by Peter Fonda, the commercial offers a chance for its baby boomer audience to be a bit self-deprecating about angst over youth and those long-lost possibilities for freedom and independence.
What it doesn’t do, however, is call upon that same middle-aged+ audience to think about how a “Me Generation” attitude and sell-out to corporate America produced what seemed unthinkable in the late 1960s and early 1970s: that the former flower child generation would abandon the Earth’s delicate ecosystem and be directly culpable for big contributions to anthropogenic climate change.
With references to the 1969 classic film, “Easy Rider,” the fun Mercedes Super Bowl ad features a bar filled with aging bikers. Long gray beards. Tie dyed shirts. Fringed sleeves. Bulging bellies. Bodies no longer behaving in sync with the mind. Fist fights that go nowhere. One biker holds a lighter flame aloft just a bit too long. Two others hug and intertwine their long necklaces.
When one biker¹ slams open the swinging, Old West-reminiscent saloon doors, he catches everyone’s attention. “Blocked in,” he growls. The bar goes silent. “Blocked in?” is the refrain from the unbelievers.
Outside the bar, with the biker crowd onlooking and a lone eagle’s cry in the distance, we see a silver Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster and, walking toward it, Peter Fonda. He looks to the crowd and comments, “Nice rides.” A wrinkled female biker acknowledges, “Still lookin’ good.”
Fonda slips into the Roadster, beer mugs shake on the bar top, and the Mercedes-AMG GT speeds into the distance in a cloud of dust. The music returns alongside the slogans, “Born to be wild. Built to be wild.” The Mercedes maneuvers around corners and along sagebrush lined roads. Looking ahead, with the sun glinting around him, Fonda throws the audience — wait for it — the peace sign.
According to Ad Age, Drew Slaven, VP-marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA, said the ad’s creative team realized how Easy Rider was all about open air, the love of the drive, and “freedom as a the result of the machine you are on.” Commenting on how the Coen brothers were lured to do the spot, Andy Hirsch, chief creative officer at at Merkley, said: “They were excited that Peter Fonda was doing it too… (It) all came together. It was a great collaboration.”
That collaboration coalesced with the production know-how of the Coen brothers, whose films No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski have become cult classics.
Why Mercedes failed to use the Super Bowl to speak out about climate change action
The “Easy Driver” ad is part of Mercedes’ new strategy of giving more marketing attention to AMG, which is its sports car and high-performance sub brand. According to Car and Driver,
In these roadsters, performance is the real point. A 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 pairs with a seven-speed automatic, making 469 horsepower in the GT model. With 550 hp, the GT C shaves 0.2 second off the base car’s claimed 3.9-second zero-to-60-mph time. GT C models get rear-wheel steering and a limited-slip differential from the racy GT R coupe. Expect the GT roadsters to arrive in Mercedes-AMG showrooms in fall 2017.
Power. Performance. Speed. What else would a Baby Boomer want?
Shaped by the Cold War, the Baby Boomer generation became adults who were able to experience economic opportunity, and they took full advantage of it. However, they really didn’t bother to preserve the environment for generations to come in the way that many had anticipated. They burned inexpensive fossil fuels and filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases. It’s a generation that will probably never pay the costs of averting catastrophic climate change or helping their grandchildren adapt to a warmer world.
Mercedes knows that media messages are all about co-constructing meaning. To call out the upscale Baby Boomer audience which is the target for the identity rejuvenating Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster would mean that Mercedes would probably lose a valuable client share. It’s just easier for Baby Boomers to laugh alongside the Coen brothers than to be made accountable for a generational self-centeredness. Mercedes knows their target audience.
Millennials and attitudes on climate change action
A study by Statista in March 2014 looked at the different attitudes on climate change between generations. When asked if they believed that climate change was real and that humans were to blame for most of it, 50 percent of millennials answered yes, whereas Baby Boomers answered 43 percent yes. This Baby Boomer ennui is quite unsettling when taking into account powerful forces like the Koch brothers, oil companies, and lobbyists who devote significant time and financial resource to demonizing environmentalist action, protecting factory farming, and supporting unsustainable industries. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until millennials control Congress before we have substantive climate action.
Yes, millennials have enjoyed living in a country with the most pro-environment president in decades. They enjoyed a governing administration that demonstrated interest in sensible climate legislation, including the Paris Climate Agreement and the Climate Action Plan. And Mercedes knows that the millennials’ share of new vehicle purchases surged 150 percent between 2010 and 2014. Looking to cater to the generation’s growing purchasing power to build a future customer base, Mercedes will have to adapt to environmental and marketing trends that a eco-conscious generation not just wants but expects.
¹With only one person of color in the commercial, this critique could easily have gone in another direction and asked why Mercedes and the Coen brothers featured a nearly all-white cast.