Lately, I've been seeing this commercial for the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class an awful lot, and it's kind of been haunting me. And not just because the disembodied voice of Don Draper is telling me, calmly but firmly, how awesome the new car is. There's something profoundly disturbing about this ad, and I want to get to the bottom of it.
There's really very little that actually happens in the ad; the action that does occur is slowed down significantly, so the thirty seconds of runtime actually equates to just a few moments in real time. We're seeing a very tiny snippet here, which makes each and every detail that much more important.
The main action is the C-Class doing a very impressive drift, approaching the camera, which then glides through the open window, views the interior, then exits the other side. That's pretty much it, action-wise. But the manner and environment this occurs speaks volumes.
First of all, let's look at the driver. Readers of this blog may recognize the man, Rhys Millen, a Formula Drift champion. Roughly 99% (plus or minus Rhys' mom) of the rest of the population watching the ad will have no idea who this man is in the sideways-sliding car.
What they can tell is that, based on his facial expression (fig 1) something very intense and likely distasteful is happening. The faces the driver is making are not the faces of a man delighted with his car and his amazing drift. His face looks more like he's just witnessed a kitten execution.
Plus, when the camera slides into the car, it appears that the driver's gaze is locked on the nav system screen (fig 2)— a pretty odd focus for a man piloting a car sideways. The drift itself is very impressive, and in other contexts, would be a joy to watch. But here, based on the driver's joyless expression, there's a much more ominous feeling.
That feeling is reinforced by the scene and overall look of the commercial. The color palette is almost exclusively desaturated greys and browns. This looks more like an M-rated war videogame than a rewarding drive in a luxury automobile.
The environment the car is drifting in is equally oppressive and ominous. It's an old-looking, fairly densely-developed cityscape, feeling somewhat European, maybe even Eastern European, though there is a mailbox (fig 3) of what appears to be American design.
The road itself is littered with a liberal amount of small leaves, or possibly rubble and ash. The entire area is smoky and foggy, with distances as small as one block being substantially obscured by clouds of smoke or fog or ashes. Most disturbingly, the city is entirely void of all life, human or otherwise. The disturbed-looking driver is the only living soul seen. The streets are empty, the buildings vacant. He's sliding sideways through a ghostly no-man's land. It looks like a scene out of The Road.
The car itself is outgassing copious amounts of smoke as well (fig 4) suggesting perhaps an unseen trunk fire.
So how are we to read this, as a whole? Keep in mind, in a modern commercial, every aspect of the look and feel is carefully controlled. Everything you see here was chosen very deliberately, for a very specific purpose that should end up in me wanting to run out and buy a Mercedes, presumably stopping en route to hock a kidney. So what's the story here?
As far as I can tell, it's this: a horrific disaster has occurred, blotting out all life on earth save for Rhys Millen. I'm guessing meteorite. A cloud of ash has blocked out the sun and permanently polluted the air, leaving many cities standing but little more than colossal mausoleums for the dead.
Rhys, broken and driven nearly insane by the grief of losing everyone he loved, decides to commit suicide by setting a slow fire in the back of a new C-Class and drifting it around the city until the fire consumes the car, finally gifting him death's sweet release. He's focusing his attention on the nav screen because he can't bear to look at the grim, unpeopled city around him anymore. It just hurts too much.
So! Who wants to go buy a Benz? *sobs*
I'm going to go hug my wife and little boy.