SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: In 1990, Mercedes-Benz released an iconic commercial aimed at showcasing how its vehicles are engineered like no other. The ad told the story of how Christopher White survived a crash that saw him lose control of his Mercedes-Benz after a moment’s inattention and plummet the equivalent of 30-stories onto the jagged rocks below – a crash that he survived only because he was wearing his seatbelt and driving a Mercedes-Benz.
It has been thirty years since White’s almost fatal accident but he remains devoted to the car brand that saved his life.
Mercedes-Benz recently launched its new S-Class – the brand’s latest foray on the road to autonomous driving. In the new commercial, which takes the form of a documentary-style content piece, White revisits the route that nearly ended his life, this time driving hands-free in the new S-Class.
Advertising agency, Net#work BBDO has been working with the Mercedes-Benz brand for ten years now, says creative director Tim Beckerling. “We’ve created so many great campaigns with Mercedes-Benz over the years, and this one certainly stands out for the whole agency/client team, as it is steeped in so much advertising history and heritage. What a privilege to revisit one of South Africa’s most iconic advertising stories, with the future facing ambitions of the brand right at the heart of it all.”
While the original 1990 spot was a re-enactment of White’s incredible story of survival; Beckerling says that it left the viewer unsettled and wanting more. With this in mind, Beckerling and his team decided to delve deeper into White’s story in the new commercial.
“We sold Mercedes-Benz a simple idea in the form of a newspaper headline ‘Famous Crash Survivor Returns to Chapman’s Peak in Autonomous S-Class’. We asked them to take the leap and imagine those very words on the front page of a newspaper, not only as a description of the idea but as the ambition for the project. To create something newsworthy, not advertising but rather a rich, dramatic story that people would be transfixed by, with the brand at the heart of it. They instantly saw the potential and gave us their full support on the project,” Beckerling shares.
As the starting point Net#work BBDO hired a private investigator to trace White’s whereabouts. Efforts were also made to find the production team that was involved in the original spot. “We spoke to a number of people involved in the production of the original ad but as you might guess, many of them have moved on and since retired. We managed to get Willie Sonnenberg on a radio interview recounting the filming of the original ad, done by Sonnenberg Murphy Leo Burnett, in the early 90’s and the impact it had on the market at the time. We also had chats with Keith Rose, the director of the original piece, very early on in pre-production,” informs Beckerling.
Cape Town-based production company, 7 Films, shot the new spot with Lourens van Rensburg directing. “Tim and myself go way back. We both love anything that is fast and has wheels. We’re passionate about motorsport and cars. We are proud to call ourselves petrol heads. We’ve been wanting to work on a project together for a while now and finally I got a phone call from Tim telling me that he has an idea that we can collaborate on. That’s where it started,” comments van Rensburg.
Beckerling briefed van Rensburg on the concept, while the private investigator managed to track down White: “We managed to locate him in East London and explained the concept to him. He is a loyal brand ambassador and absolutely loves the brand. He was keen from the beginning to be involved in this project,” says van Rensburg.
During pre-production, Van Rensburg and his team soon discovered that shooting the ad would come with its fair share of challenges. “Our greatest challenge was trying to close off Chapman’s Peak Drive. Thirty years ago when the first commercial was made, you were able to lock off Chapman’s Peak easily. Today there are bylaws and restrictions that we have to adhere by. The Parks Board were incredibly helpful and so was Schalk Bloem and his team. We had very little time that we could be on the road. We were not able to close the road completely. We had a rolling lock off which meant we had to keep moving and we couldn’t stop. That made it quite challenging having other cars on the road. We had to stay within all the safety parameters and obey the rules of the road. Normally when we lock off the road, we don’t necessarily have to obey the rules.”
Beckerling conducted on-camera interviews with White, while art director Steven Tyler gave White driving lessons in the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class. “We wanted to achieve something real and believable. We didn’t want anything to be overdone. We wanted the audience to experience this like Christopher did,” tells van Rensburg.
“Chris was happy and eager to be involved, but he thought we were just making a film about the old story in slightly more detail. He had absolutely no idea that the car was going to be doing the driving for him until just moments before it actually took place. The film is a real representation of his shock and fear around the prospect of this as it happened in the moment and his trepidation really come across on screen,” adds Beckerling. After much convincing, White finally lets go of the steering wheel and the new S-Class drives him safely on the route that nearly cost him his life.
The new commercial was shot on the Arri Alexa Mini, with aerial shots captured by Timeslice Photography. “We wanted it to feel like a modern day Netflix documentary or series… We decided right up front that we were going to do everything on camera. No post-production, no nothing. That obviously made it more challenging but I believe the end result was worth it,” comments van Rensburg.
Additionally, archival footage was acquired from White along with a few others, as well as from the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI). James O’ Sullivan was responsible for editing. “We managed to secure James as our editor. He is an unbelievably young and talented editor who comes from a film background. We wanted an editor that could tell that story in a specific way and he was the perfect choice. The amount of archival and raw footage he had to go through was a great challenge. We believe that we could not have done it without him,” shares van Rensburg.
The spot was released toward the end of May 2018 and by the first week of June it was awarded Creative Online’s Editors Pick and the Best of the Week title on BestAdsonTV.com. The commercial was also featured as a Cannes Contender on Shots.net and popular SABC3 lifestyle show Top Billing did a behind-the-scenes feature on the ad.
“If there is ever a measure of success for a piece of carefully calculated creative work it is to go all the way back to the start and remind yourself of the objective. Ours was to make headlines and we have achieved that with aplomb. We’ve had kind words from people all over the world, from those who remember the original spot and those who weren’t even born when it first aired,” notes Beckerling.
“Hopefully the take out for the everyday South African is that the technology available in every Mercedes-Benz is designed with one critical thing in mind, their safety,” he concludes.
The new S-Class commercial was shot on the Arri Alexa Mini, with aerial shots captured by Timeslice Cinematography
- Director: Lourens Van Rensburg
- DOP: Lourens Van Rensburg, Mike Ellis, Luke Van Rensburg
- Sound: Zahir Isaacs
- Editor: James O’Sullivan
- Executive producer: Nina Van Rensburg