Christopher White returns to Chapman’s Peak Drive 30 years after he plummeted down the side in a similar Mercedes.
Christopher White returns to Chapman’s Peak Drive 30 years after he plummeted down the side in a similar Mercedes.

Many people will remember the famous advert by Mercedes-Benz after motorist Christopher White crashed down the side of Chapman’s Peak in Cape Town.

The ad is often still discussed by marketing people because it was in the days when competitive advertising was still allowed and not long after Mercedes ran its ad, BMW and then Land Rover jumped on the chance to push their own brands.

The original Mercedes ad aired in 1990 but now the company has taken White back to Chapman’s Peak.

In a dramatic documentary-style content piece, Mercedes-Benz takes viewers on a journey along the windy mountain pass with White, survivor of a crash 30 years ago that saw him lose control of his beloved Mercedes after a moment’s inattention and plummet the equivalent of 30-stories onto the jagged rocks below — a crash he survived only because he was wearing his seatbelt, and according to Mercedes, because he was driving one of their cars.

Fast forward to 2018 and the latest generation Mercedes S-Class is the latest rendition on the road to autonomous driving and White places his trust in the brand that saved his life 30 years ago, by taking his hands off the wheel to let the car drive him along the road that nearly took his life. Telling White the company believes the S-Class is the most intelligent car in the world didn’t allay his fears. The drive had to be felt to be believed.

At the start of the content piece, which is available online, viewers feel White’s terror and his unwillingness to trust the technology. But in the closing frames, White puts his trust in the car.

Brad Reilly, executive creative director at Net#work BBDO, which created the documentary, says the decision to launch it instead of a more traditional 30-second ad-spot is brave in a world of selective viewers and channel-hoppers.

"As a brand, Mercedes-Benz is leading the industry towards the future of mobility. The concept we presented was, in that sense, brand relevant."

Reilly says the content is riveting and the creative approach heightens the emotional impact to levels not attainable in a shorter format: "We knew that this was the only way to do justice to the concept, to the cars, and to the brand."

The content piece takes viewers through White’s 1988 crash in second-by-second detail, breaking footage from the original ad up into jagged segments of action interspersed with White remembering what he was seeing, feeling and thinking at the time, and featuring media footage and comments from the first responders to the accident scene.

The mood is surreal as White, who moved away from Cape Town and had never been back to Chapman’s Peak, gets behind the wheel to drive the treacherous bends and corners in the 2018 hands-free iteration.

Reilly says: "It’s five minutes of drama and emotion that are manipulated and dramatised by the short, sharp editing style. It’s five minutes of a terrifying roller-coaster ride that almost goes on too long to be comfortable. It’s five minutes of history best-forgotten melding into an unimaginable future that Mercedes-Benz has actualised."

Says Selvin Govender, marketing director of Mercedes-Benz Cars SA: "Moving forward from 1990, from a time when autonomous vehicles couldn’t have been imagined, to today, when the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a reality, we needed to do the unimaginable.

"For White, Chapman’s Peak was a place of horror. We asked him to revisit it, to drive it again, but this time to let our car drive him. His fear, his trepidation and his emotions are evident to start with. It’s heart-wrenching. But then you see him relax. You see the wonder on his face. You see the future of driving."

Of course, letting any car with autonomous capabilities drive you along Chapman’s Peak Drive is not to be recommended, in fact it is not even legal as you are now only allowed to remove your hands from the wheel for 10 seconds.

The documentary shows exactly how capable the technology is and how it can convince someone who genuinely needed convincing.