As the stored-away Mercedes-Benz comes to life in a dusty old barn, a song gives voice to the radio and creates a soundtrack for the anthropomorphized vehicle, belting out “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,” the opening line of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” a song recorded a cappella in 1970 and released posthumously in 1971 on the album Pearl.
The scraggly voice on the radio mirrors the dingy appearance of the car that has long sat unused but is ready to break through the wooden doors of captivity; however, irony seethes within this overlay of Joplin’s lyrics and the advertising campaign for a new series of Mercedes-Benz cars, particularly in the fact that Joplin recorded this song of “great social and political import” as a protest, not against Mercedes-Benz specifically, but against the value being placed on material objects to signify worth, which in turn transforms “friendship” into relationships based on competition. This is further supported by the lines in which Joplin justifies her desire for a Mercedes by saying her “friends all drive Porches,” another luxury car. The purchase of a Benz would simultaneously allow her to “make amends” by bringing her into the same ostensible earning bracket, but would also differentiate her and allow her to stand alone, bringing a bit of originality and prestige to the dynamic.
At the same time, the procurement of a Mercedes-Benz would also be a visible symbol justifying the hard work she’s put in with “no help from [her] friends,” which is certainly a testament to her hard work but a castigation of the manner in which commodities augur a divide in social relationships, once again focusing on the competitive aspect as opposed to the humanistic.
Joplin also uses this song to illustrate the disparity between social classes, particularly the upper and middle classes who both vie to convey themselves as visually successful. But herein lies the contradiction: the wealthy who purchase a Mercedes-Benz flaunt their success, but they can also distribute their money elsewhere, perpetuating the lifestyle they’ve earned. However, the middle class are sunk by the image and procurement of such a vehicle, relegated to ask a divine figure for “a night on the town,” suggesting mortgaging their future to purchase a car impedes the social activities of the present.
What’s a bit curious is that this inequality is further enforced by the commercial itself in that it gives each Mercedes-Benz that leaves its designated place a sense of superiority over all other cars—in that other cars are not personified—and the blue-collar workers in charge of monitoring said cars: the night watchman in the Mercedes-Benz showroom who makes his rounds and allows the luxury cars to abscond when his back is turned, or the highway-toll booth operator who is unable to stop or slow down any of the cars as they rush through the barriers evading all fares.
Like many other luxury car brands, Mercedes-Benz makes its money by advertising to the wealthy and implying a sense of prestige and accomplishment, and this is all well and good. Those who can afford the cars have earned them through some form of hard work or another. There should be no bitterness toward the owners or the car manufacturers. If you’ve got it, show it. However, the recurrent use of Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” in their commercials (the 2011 Super Bowl commercial is not the only use; it was also used in a 2007 ad) actually re-enforces the stigma of obliviousness that the wealthy have inasmuch as the protest within the lyrics is obfuscated because of the song’s pop-culture familiarity, used to sell a product that the song sardonically endorses.