Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lost in the brand

I was going to write a somewhat straightforward post about a Merecedes-Benz ad that I happened to catch on television this weekend (an unusual event as I very seldom watch TV). The ad alternates shots of people looking at old Mercedes E-class cars in the Mercedes-Benz Museum near Stuttgart with the usual footage of a gleaming new car careening around curves and over hills ("Professional driver on closed road--do not attempt at home"). At the end of the ad, the new car smashes through a glass wall of the museum and "takes its rightful place," as the narration puts it, along with its automotive ancestors.

According to a recent New York Times article, Mercedes' overall sales have fallen almost 30% over the past year, with its U.S. market taking the deepest plunge. But the company has decided that there's no mileage to be gotten from promoting efficiency and affordability as most other carmakers are curently doing. Instead, it's hyping its distinguished lineage and enduring association with luxury and innovative design, an association very much reflected in its sleek museum, designed by Amsterdam's UNStudio and opened in 2006. My original post was going to be about how interesting it was to see a company weaving its own heritage production and celebration into its advertising.

But it gets more interesting yet. In poking around looking for links for the post, I discovered that the museum's current exhibit just happens to be called "Evolution of the E-Class." So the ad is really an outlying piece of the exhibit, making the explicit connection between advertising the product and preserving/continuing the lineage. This didn't really surprise me--corporate and industry museums have always been about self-promotion, and lately we've seen a rash of high-profile new corporate museums being built or re-built. (These include the New World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, which opened in 2007 in Atlanta, Harley Davidson's flashy new Milwaukee museum in 2008, which I wrote about in an earlier post, and The Hershey Story, replacing the old Hershey Museum this past year, not to mention the Henry Ford complex in Michigan, now re-branded as The Henry Ford. Meanwhile, Wells-Fargo has steadily built a network of museums, now numbering nine, which may continue to expand as the bank absorbs other institutions around the country.)

What startled me when I made the link between the museum exhibit and the Mercedes ad was the sense that a production like this seems to have achieved utter seamlessness among design, exhibitry, promotion, product, media, and image--a state of perfect brandedness where all roads lead to the same place, and that place is all about buying and selling. Again, the basic dynamic isn't new, but this seems particularly well-integrated and far-reaching. From the museum's slick website (with its elaboration of the Mercedes-Benz "myth" but without any mention of Germany's two 20th century world wars, let alone the company's use of slave labor from concentration camps during the second one) to the book and movie tie-ins (check out the inclusion of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones's sunglasses from Men in Black 2, which featured a flying E-Class Mercedes-Benz) to the television ad campaign to the sexy museum building itself, there's a sense of control and hyper-coordination that leaves me feeling a bit short of breath, and not in a good sense.

The "fourth wall" is being broken in this ad, with the new car rushing into the museum. But the wall is breaking inward, into the over-determined territory of the brand rather than outward into any kind of messier or more participatory cultural production. Any musealogical reflection taking place here is strictly the kind that results from gazing at a shiny surface, self-referential and self-serving. (See, this is why I usually don't watch TV!)

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