Mercedes Exploits the Daredevil Cyclist Stereotype

You might have seen it making the rounds over the last couple of days — the new Mercedes ad in which a bike messenger challenges a driver in one of the company’s luxury vehicles to a race from Harlem to the Fulton Ferry landing in Brooklyn.

There are many irritating things about the ad, including the lousy acting and the roundabout route the car takes (why the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and not the FDR?). At more than seven minutes (it’s in two parts on YouTube), it’s also tediously long.

But worst is the perpetuation of that old stereotype, the "maniac" bike rider. The driver says at the beginning that he thinks the contest will be unfair: "Sure, he gets to ride like a bat out of hell and we have to follow the traffic rules."

And of course, that’s the way it goes. No doubt, the risk-taking footage is fun to watch, and some local blogs have posted favorably about the ad (even Bike Snob NYC is mild in his critique).

But Mikael Colville-Andersen at Copenhagenize has it right when he says the Mercedes spot is an effective attack on the idea that riding a bicycle in a major city could ever be comfortable or normal:

This is brilliant "Car Empire Strikes Back" marketing from Mercedes.
After watching it if I had to choose between sitting in a Mercedes or
riding all sub-cultural like that — give me the Mercedes any day.…

[The car industry has] spent a century perfecting the art of marketing and now that they
are faced with real competition — the rebirth of urban cycling — they
are tweaking their adverts accordingly.

The acting in the
above advert is abysmal, but the point is clear. It reinforces the
misconception of urban cycling as being a lawless, adrenaline-based and
sub-cultural pursuit. The smug tone is brilliantly devised and
executed.…

Unless
we start learning from the car industry’s marketing brilliance, as they
once learned from the bicycle industry, the battle is lost before the
foot hits the pedal. Marketing urban cycling for regular citizens like
we market every other product — positively. At every turn.

More from around the network: Utility Cycling asks whether Google’s new bike directions are a "game-changer." Hub and Spokes has a contrarian view on bike-sharing in Minneapolis. And The Transport Politic has the rundown on the top 10 transit projects completed in the U.S. and Canada over the last 10 years.

  • ash

    “Marketing urban cycling for regular citizens like we market every other product — positively. At every turn.”

    Then we’re in a catch-22 situation, because it seems that, whenever I walk into my local cycle shop, their manner and the merchandise speak primarily to the ultra-hip, ultra-tech cyclist, certainly not to me. As long as they (bike/accessory manufacturers and service providers) perceive that the money lies in fanatical, velostar, cycling (as conveyed by the mercedes ad as well), then they won’t market their product to us “regular” folk anytime soon.

    At what point do we “ordinary” cyclists reach a critical mass (no pun intended) to count as a market worthy of attention?

  • dcj

    It’s ironic that in the first segment of the “New York Challenge,” they emphasize the cool, urban aspect of the city and the Mercedes agent by showing him on the street in Times Square — which looks so great because automobiles have been banned from it.

    (And in the second segment, it’s unrealistic that a bike messenger who has just crossed Manhattan at full tilt would need or want a heated leather seat!)

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