Mercedes Benz has a holiday ad this year showing Santa strolling through a huge stable of expensive cars, every one fire-engine red. We are asked to understand that all of these are his to choose among when he heads out on Christmas Eve. He selects a magnificent Mercedes sports car, and moments later we watch him whizzing away down the highway, behind a team of 8 grey Mercedes sedans.
You have several choices here. You could allow the ad some credibility, simply based on its technical sophistication and marketing expertise. Or you could dismiss it, with no thought at all. After all, it’s just a 20 second blip on a busy cable channel. Or you might chuckle at the ad’s clever strategy for inserting their pricy and high-status product into the Christmas theme.
Or, it seems to me, you might think this commercial was not funny at all. That could happen, if you recognized the message was a blatant and egregious prostitution of the spiritual by the commercial, and it only works well if the viewer is vulnerable to the covert message. Mercedes marketing wants you to believe your personal worth and social status are enhanced by the ownership of redundant luxury cars: more is better, self worth is determined by material possessions, and it is better to have than to give (how many Christmas gifts can you stow in the boot of a Mercedes sports car?)
I began the Snake Oil page because I was often troubled by the way commerce has intruded, and insinuated itself, into everyday life. Consumers are often not people, whose well-being should be taken into account during the marketing process, but tiny pockets of profit to be tipped upside down. The closer I looked at marketing practices, the greater my concern . While there are merchants who are restrained by an internal code of business ethics, those that have no code can prance through the marketplace with few restrictions or challenges. They are free to treat customers as marks and suckers, and only when they fail to analyze their prey accurately and present the wrong bait.
The Mercedes ad is, imo, an elegant example of getting it right. But if you’re the consumer, how funny is that?