Mercedes plays awkward role in ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Mercedes vehicles are prominent in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

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Mercedes-Benz has a prominent role in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the dystopian TV show about life under a totalitarian regime that has overthrown the United States government. But it’s hardly a flattering one.

In this adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel — which wrapped up its second season on Hulu in July — the Republic of Gilead’s sadistic leaders are ferried around in unmistakable G-class SUVs and S-class sedans. Dissidents are carted off in Sprinter vans. While other vehicles make cameos, no other brand gets so much exposure.

Sometimes, of course, you want your brand to be associated with fictional bad guys, as Jaguar did with its celebrated British Villains campaign. It can help cast the brand as anti-establishment, irreverent.

But serving as the tools of an oppressive regime is a pretty dark place.

Slaven: Brand not seen as villain

Despite the primo screen time, Mercedes-Benz said it is not involved with product placement on the show.

“We didn’t seek it out. It wasn’t one that we advocated for,” Mercedes-Benz USA Chief Marketing Officer Drew Slaven told Automotive News. “It’s not something that I’m clapping my hands about and high-fiving and saying ‘Isn’t this great?’ But as someone who is paid to do the best job possible of keeping the brand front and center, I don’t cringe.”

It’s easy to see why a global brand would want to distance itself from the show, with its themes of female subjugation, institutionalized rape and human rights abuse, along with its graphic depictions of violence and torture. In one episode, an S class is hijacked by a dissident and used as a deadly weapon to mow down one of Gilead’s guards.

Slaven waves off the suggestion that Mercedes’ association with the show’s villains could tarnish the brand.

The show “is accepted as a highly fictionalized piece of content,” Slaven said. As he sees it, the role of the Mercedes badge in the show is to represent an iconic brand, not the characters who drive the vehicles.

“The idea is to put a character into what is assumed to be the highest form of luxury and prestige,” he said. “I think that’s the way consumers accept it.”

Viewers, he added, “don’t see us as a villain by any stretch.”

While Slaven is keeping his distance from the show, one Mercedes dealership is leveraging the appearances to drive foot traffic.

On its blog, Mercedes-Benz of Arrowhead in Peoria, Ariz., encourages fans of the show to come check out and test drive the Mercedes models featured on the show.

“These vehicles are a good fit for the series, because they are tough looking and so innovative that they seem futuristic,” the blog post notes. “Mercedes-Benz has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to technology features and performance capabilities. These vehicles work well with the environment and tone of the show.”

The dealership didn’t return several calls seeking comment.

Not all dealers would be so comfortable using a polarizing show such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” for marketing.

Aiosa: “Position of weakness”

“You put yourself in a position of weakness,” said Jeff Aiosa, owner of Carriage House of New London, Conn., a Mercedes-Benz dealership. “There may be people that are like, ‘I’m offended by that show, so now I don’t want to do business with you.’ ”

Slaven is more diplomatic about Mercedes-Benz of Arrowhead’s move.

“Product placement works better at the higher end of the funnel than the lower,” Slaven said. “But retailers live and do their best work lower in the funnel, and God love them for doing their best to bring customers in however, whenever they can.”

Many brands are ready to take their chances with product placements, supplying vehicles they want to promote but stopping short of dictating how they are depicted or described in the script. The placements help them break through to audiences on TV shows that appear on commercial-free streaming services, or when viewers fast-forward through the commercial breaks on recorded programs.

When a product is organically placed in a film or television show, the likelihood of consumers seeing it is high, said Linda Swick, president of International Promotions, a Los Angeles-based entertainment marketing firm.

“A 30-second, 60-second ad, you don’t know if they are watching them or not now,” Swick said.

Mercedes is no stranger to product placement. The ML320 was featured prominently in the 1997 film The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Mercedes showed off the CLS550 Coupe in the Showtime series “Ray Donovan” and the E-class Cabriolet in the superhero film Justice League.

Reality television show “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” meanwhile, brought attention to the boxy G-Wagen.

“Before the Kardashians show, the G-Wagen wasn’t on the map,” said Aiosa, who is also the Mercedes brand representative for the National Automobile Dealers Association. “Since the Kardashians are driving it, everybody wants G-Wagens.”

Product placement is more about driving brand awareness than moving sheet metal.

“We don’t expect necessarily for someone to sit and watch ‘black-ish’ and say, ‘OK, I’m going to run out and buy the S class,’ ” Slaven said.

But by identifying with a character on the show, the viewer also identifies with the products the character uses.

“By extension, there’s a higher degree of [product] awareness,” Slaven said.

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