Mercedes Benz’s new campaign video, Grow Up: Start a Family, begins with imagery we expect in a car commercial marketed toward young families: attractive parents, a cute child, and a shiny vehicle cutting through the American West. Of course, the West invokes a mythic meaning in the American soul as an arena for pursuing personal freedom.
But is there a downside to such freedom? The commercial seems to answer yes.
False Freedom’s Trap
Our popular culture has long explored this question. One of the most penetrating explorations is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1974). In the film, New York has descended into a kind of Wild West. A taxi driver spends his nights driving through the claustrophobic streets, his vehicle no longer symbolizing freedom. He wishes for a cleansing, divine rain to wash the streets of moral pollution, but he spends his days popping pills, gorging on sugar and booze, and going to pornographic theaters. Ultimate freedom paradoxically only delivers the trap of addiction.
What’s remarkable about the Mercedes Grow Up campaign is that this pessimistic cultural analysis has entered the realm of advertising. The campaign features a hip young English couple taking their daughter on a road trip to the American West. Yet all the romance of our Western mythology disappears as the couple begins to argue in front of their daughter. We discover the father has left the family. He transforms before our eyes. Gone is the trope of the jean-clad, cool, confident man. Instead we see the passive, insecure, broken, contemporary man.
He retorts that he left because the woman repeatedly cheated on him. Gone is the attractive model-type we’ve met a thousands times before. Instead, her face is filled with bitterness, hurt, and self-loathing. We no longer feel we’re in the expansive, sun-drenched freedom of the American West. Instead, it feels like we’ve stumbled into a painfully uncomfortable domestic argument in a dour English town.
Accompanying the family on their trip is a young attractive couple, obviously in love and, importantly, childless. The man seems to be a successful musician, and his girlfriend dotes on him. As the family descends into argument, the couple—free from parenting responsibilities—frolics in the distance in their swimwear. In past campaigns they would have been the central figures, promising sexual allure, glamor, and happiness. Now they haunt the Western desert like specters, hovering as ideals but always out of reach. Endless personal freedom promised us our fantasies, but all we have left is fragility, brokenness, and dysfunction.
Hitting Rock Bottom
That a brand—a luxury brand like Mercedes—would delve into such painful territory is stunning. Yet it reveals the depth of our cultural crisis. No longer are they showcasing our dreams and desires. The best they can offer is that while we struggle to hold our families together, the comfort and reliability of a German-made automobile might make the relational awkwardness at least bearable.
The final scene of the commercial shows us a hint of a smile on the mom’s face as she peers back to see the dad find their daughter’s lost sock. Likewise, the final scene of Taxi Driver shows the driver staring in his rearview mirror at what seems to be a momentary illusion. Does the mother see a sign of redemption in her rearview mirror, or is it too just a momentary illusion? As the Mercedes logo appears we wonder if they will make it. What sort of future will their daughter have?
As I watched the Mercedes commercial I thought of the book of Judges, which displays a cycle of cultural breakdown. God’s people forget him, then seek autonomy and power through idol worship, then become addicted and enslaved to those them. Worshiping objects leads them to objectify others, especially the poor. As the apogee of moral corruption is reached, judgment descends in the form of cultural breakdown and foreign occupation. Yet the pain of judgment opens up the possibility of turning back to God.
I wonder if the Mercedes video hints that we may be approaching such a moment. People are realizing total freedom leads to pain and dysfunction. Hopefully this realization will lead them to seek the One who entered the desert not for personal liberation, but to obey his Father. He died so we might be freed from our excesses and their deadly consequences. And when we put our trust in him, we find meaning and joy in a life of obedience.
As the costs of unlimited personal freedom become more apparent, these ancient ways will become ever more luminous. The cultural exhaustion brought on by endless freedom will lead many to seek the freedom found in the good news, which bids us to die to self.