Along with millions of others, I watched the Superbowl yesterday. Superbowl XLVII was an exciting game! The outcome wasn't determined until the final play. Of course, in addition to the football contest itself, the television commercials during the game have come to generate their own interest, spectacle and Monday-morning second-guessing: "Who had the best commercial?" "Who had the worst?" Animal spots seem to be a favorite- In recent years, the Monday after the Superbowl coworkers at Stewart Title have asked if I saw the chimp commercials. This year it was a goat.
The commercial that most caught my attention yesterday, however, was the Mercedes "soul" ad. Here is a link to it:
In the ad, a young man sitting alone at a restaurant booth looks through the window and sees a billboard for the new Mercedes Benz sedan. Instantly, the Devil appears (played by Willem Dafoe), who offers the man a glimpse into how wonderful his life would be if he owned that car: He'd be on the red carpet with supermodel Kate Upton, dancing with pop star Usher, dating multiple beautiful women, adored by multitudes, and winning NASCAR races. In short, the car would make all of his fantasies come true.
The Devil gives the young man a pen with which to sign away his soul. Ink-tip poised over the infernal contract, the man looks back out the window and realizes the car only costs about $30,000. "I've got this," he says, setting aside the pen to the Devil's dismay.
I like Mercedes. When I was younger I used to own an old 280 SEL, and I loved that car. But, I was really disappointed with the commercial... not with its production value, which was excellent. Rather, I was disappointed with the implications of its message.
What bothered me most was the man's portrayal as just about to sign. Thankfully for him, I suppose, Mercedes came through with a low sticker price, allowing him to potentially purchase the car and avoid eternal damnation. But that's the problem... What sticker price would have caused the man to sign? $50,000? $100,000 or more? He was about to sign it, so he must have had some budgetary limits he was willing to forego by pawning his immortal soul. No matter the price, isn't it alarming that he was willing to sell his soul for a car?
Taking all theology out of it, there is an implication that not only our souls but our principles have a sticker price- and we are willing to sell them if the material rewards are high enough. That's an alarming message, especially considering the flak and rancor surrounding excesses on Wall Street the last few years. Without assigning any blame, consider too that the recent housing and mortgage crisis in America was due in large part to consumers borrowing far more than they could repay... Should the mentality behind these debacles be celebrated?
Unfortunately, it's not sexy to live within your means. Buying only what you can afford probably will keep fantasies purely within the realm of fantasy. But is that truly so bad? Is life unacceptable without luxury cars and supermodels? Mercedes is not to blame for the world's entitlement mentality. Nor is the play on a Faustian bargain a new plot device. Such stories actually go back at least as far as the 6th century. As the world matures, though, it may be time to keep such fables in the realm of cautionary tales, not advertisements. Otherwise we may risk conveying the ideal that there are shortcuts to success, and that the sacrifice of principles can be justified for the right price.