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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 NYC bike messenger Austin Horse 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.