brand storytelling, politics and culture — February 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Is Cadillac Committing Class Warfare?


When I first viewed this TV spot for the Cadillac 2014 ELR, I couldn’t tell if it was serious or satirical.

The basic pitch is common enough: you’ve worked hard and deserve your rewards.

But it’s presented by a smug 1-percenter whose performance is so over-the-top you might think you’re watching a sketch from Saturday Night Live.

Moreover, the spot takes a moralistic tone that is new and, in my view, unsettling.

Cadillac Presents Us With An Enemy

Rather than simply extolling the virtues of an industrious life, Cadillac contrasts America’s culture of hard work with an enemy, a foreign culture whose inhabitants “stroll home” after a day at the office, “stop by the cafe” and take off the entire month of August.

I assume Cadillac is referring to Europeans, in particular the French. The narrator wraps up his pitch, after all, with a snarky “n’est pas?”

But it’s not just that these imaginary slackers are lazy; it’s that they don’t believe.

An Enemy of Non-Believers

Americans, in contrast, are “crazy-driven hardworking believers.” And it’s this belief, we are told, that led to the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul and the moon landing.

Let’s put aside for a moment those indolent European non-believers like Einstein and Madame Curie, not to mention Werner van Braun, the ex-Nazi who headed our space program in the 60s. We are supposed to understand that Americans, due to our “crazy driven” culture, are singularly blessed to make important contributions to society.

But that’s just garden-variety jingoism, a little arch for a spot wrapping itself in the flag, but not the most interesting thing going on here.

An Enemy Of Fellow Americans

What is remarkable is the subtext. The idea of non-believers refers not only to foreigners across the Atlantic. It can also be seen as a stand-in for Americans who, from Cadillac’s point-of-view, hold the wrong values. Call them the 99%, the 47%, whatever percent you like.

Check out many of the comments the spot has garnered on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

The key here is that Cadillac is presenting us with a stark Manichean view of society: there are believers who work hard and enjoy the spoils; and there are non-believers who take it easy and deserve their economic hardship and lowly status.

Class Warfare As Commodity

Cadillac is not making a distinction between America and Europe. It is making a distinction between one group of Americans and another.

Celebrating success has always been a staple of marketing communications, but holding the less successful in contempt, as this spot clearly does, is a disturbing innovation.

This is the commodification of class warfare, and it is a noteworthy moment in the history of advertising and American commerce.

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  1. Peter Hewett

    Sounds like the Europeans have their shit together if you ask me.. I’d take a half day, cafe lunch and a month off over a caddy any day of the year.

  2. Having lived in Europe for close to a decade, I agree. Despite their many problems, Europeans still, for the most part, try to put more emphasis on living that accumulating.

  3. The thing that is wrong with this spot is neither the strategy or the message. It is the tone. Reminds me of the National Car advertising which I loathe. Cadillac has every right to build its prestige back into its advertising; even a certain smugness, if executed without such a heavy hand, might be called for. I like the way the Europeans live. This is a case of right strategy, wrong execution.

  4. Natty Bumppo

    You so want this guy to go to jail for insider trading or money laundering or whatever. He’s just another rich asshole who thinks he “did it himself” without the need of community organizers, safety nets or another otherpiece of crap being thrown at him by weak and lazy “nobodies.”

  5. The message of thus commercial comes across loud and clear. When I first saw it I thought, wow, that’s harsh but dismissed it as just a dumb commercial. But you’re right, it’s a sign.
    Funny, I was with a group of non-advertising people over the weekend, they were talking about this spot in the same way. Of course they didn’t refer to it as a stark Manichean view of society, but they made the same points.

  6. I like the spot. It’s a breath of fresh air (no pun intended given it’s a zero emission electric), both from an advertising and a values standpoint. The production value – that over-the-top delivery style you mention – rises above the noise of the typical car commercial. It is a caricature. Values-wise, they went counter to the politically correct culture, which a sizable segment of the populace has grown weary of, in order to tout “American exceptionalism,” I think it is called. Caddy feels like they know their audience and know who is not their audience and decided to touch a nerve. I can’t afford one, but I hope the gamble is a huge success for them. It is a flag-wrapped ad, yes, but I think you read too much into pitting American v American. He points out American accomplishments like the moon landing and says, “we” did that. He talks about those believers in the so-called “American dream” of being able to work hard and succeed (which has led wave after wave of immigrants from other countries to our shores, I might add). And finally, it’s not proposing a constitutional amendment to ban other viewpoints, or a declaration of war on France. Let’s breathe and remember it’s a luxury car maker attempting to sell cars by extolling a different point of view. As the French might say, vive la différence!

  7. I was also surprised and a little uncomfortable when I first saw this spot. It seemed to boldly say “I’m materialistic and I’m proud of it!” Too heavy-handed, IMO. But it may be perfect for Cadillac. I disagree with you, however, in your assessment that it’s saying Europeans deserve their economic hardship and lowly status. It didn’t actually say either of those things. It said they like to stroll by the cafe on the way home and they like to take longer vacations – it’s a lifestyle choice they’ve made which actually sounds pretty appealing. They may be less hard-driven than us, but it didn’t say their lifestyle choices are wrong or that they’re poor or have low status. Also, the spot didn’t say there are zero innovators from other countries – but that U.S. has far more of them, which is true. There’s no debate that the U.S. far outranks other countries in terms of Nobel laureates: Scroll down on this wiki page: Funny that you brought up Einstein as an example of a foreign-born success story – he came to the U.S. at age 50 and never went back to Germany. The thing that bugged me the most about this spot was the wink at the end. Too cute. As far as class divides, I see every commercial selling luxury cars as promoting a class divide. At least this one tied money in with hard work. Not such a terrible thing. Less vacation = more money.

  8. Hmmm, reminds me of propaganda films. (That’s the guy from the Terminator films who turns in to mercury, right? Handsome and in better shape than 95% of USA citizens, but too Aryan.)

    The attitude stops just short of actual Jingoism, but runs headlong at it. It sells the American Dream very hard at a time when things are not all that good.

    I think it was probably conceived by and green-lighted by millennials who, because of when they were born, don’t really have a solid connection to the WW II and other historical conflicts, but, instead, are sourcing jabs made by Leno, Letterman and other smartmouth (intended with some praise) comedians about our fictitious national superiority.

    A parallel approach would be a King Kong sized gorilla wearing an American Flag as a T-shirt shown crushing foreign cars in its bare hands and tossing them to the Statue of Liberty, who slingshots them back to from where they came.

    • The actor is Neal McDonough. Don’t think he was in Terminator, but has a long list of credits from Diagnosis Murder to Band of Brothers to Captain America to the series Justified, as a few examples. Now, on to that Statue of Liberty slingshot idea… 😉

  9. Bryan Parker

    It is an ad. This ad is “good” if it enhances recall and preference for Cadillac within their target market. Likewise, the ad is bad only if the target market is put off (less inclined to prefer or remember Cadillac). How I feel about the ad (I am not their ad target since I prefer and buy small and more affordable Japanese cars) is irrelevant.

  10. Ivan Nelson

    David, thanks for another very provocative post and for giving us an opportunity to comment! This is indeed an odd one. I truly enjoyed watching this caricature of a “successful and driven” 1-percenter, but I clearly wasn’t the target for this ad.

    Cadillac is indeed trying to be more royalist than the king in order to grab an audience of 1-percenter it has steadily lost to foreign car manufacturers over the past forty years. So Cadillac is not just taking a shot at the Europeans’ lifestyle, they are hoping to illicit a nationalistic response as well.

    As is typically the case, they used a number of stereotypes in order to get a simple idea across. Clearly, they want to grab market share back from German car makers but making fun of the French is simply easier. Having worked for the second largest French Company, I can attest to the fact that they are not the pushovers portrayed here: I met many people who worked evenings and weekends too.

  11. Such a super tacky ad, remind me to stick with the imports. A

  12. As Im the one who wrote this piece, I figured it time to weigh in on the discussion.

    From the thread here, along with emails that have been sent to me directly, I see that the critiques of my essay fall into a few basic camps:

    1) “ But it’s just an ad”: This aims at shutting down discussion before it can begin. Since the Cadillac spot is “just an ad,” understanding it in any social or political context is off-limits.

    Oddly, this critique has come from a number of advertising and branding pros. While in their professional capacity they may stress to their clients the importance of brands expressing and reflecting societal values, in the case of the Cadillac spot, this bedrock of brand analysis is surprisingly absent.

    2) “But it’s a really an effective ad”: This critique also aims to deflect discussion away from the spot’s cultural implications, arguing that the ends justify the means. By doing so one can avoid any critique or interpretation of those means.

    3) “But They Don’t Actually Say That!”: The critique denies the possibility of interpretation altogether. Unless a point-of-view is stated explicitly, it doesn’t exist. Nothing can ever be suggested. There is no reading between the lines. This is a narrow legalistic approach, more suited to critiquing instruction manuals than advertising, art or literature.

    When you look at the controversy this spot has proved, it’s clear that it’s far more than an ad, and it says a lot more that what’s in the script.

  13. Nothing political about it. Simply a bad advertisement. This ad was cooked btw two Detroit ad executives and the marketing executives of GM. Banter, crude jokes and laughters filled the room. They all reassured themselves how awesome this will be. They hashed out how it could fly through the internal approval process and wouldn’t get tested too much in focus groups (where it would have failed to generate excitement for the vehicle itself). The key word was ‘branding’, not “sales”. Therefore they chose an electric car–because those get carde blanche by management and politicians. Same old stuff that ruined the brand GM in the eighties: Full of themselves and not looking beyond the (suburban) city borders. No creativity or character. The actor doesn’t connect with an audience in a positive way (often plays villains). Also wears an ill fitting, European tailored suit, camps in a mediterranean styled Californian pad with new-age infinity pool. Facts are a bit distorted and foreign cars are not really the enemy. The enemy are those lowest-common-denominator-cars GM produces. In my advertising days we called it ‘Hub cap design by committee’. Some things never change. At least not in Detroit.

    • David,
      By dismissing my response as narrow and legalistic, you commit the very offense you accuse others of – shutting down discussion.

  14. Nicole—thanks for continuing to contribute to the discussion. And by “discussion,” I mean exploring the Cadillac spot in terms of the social and political values it promotes, which is the concern of my essay.

    What struck me about most of the comments is that they simply did not engage in what the essay is about. You, on the other hand, did engage and I applaud you for that.

    I do take issue, however, with your methodology, which appears to deny that the spot can have a subtext. My interest is that subtext, the spot’s cultural code, so to speak, and what might even be called the “dog whistles” embedded within it. People may interpret that subtext differently, but, by definition, any such interpretation has to investigate what is implicit and not stated explicitly.

    Using the French as a foil to Americans is particularly revealing. The spot is not a paean to French joie de vivre. To the contrary, there is a mocking tone which, in my view, conjures up another, darker perspective towards the French, one shared by many on the Right.

    In the Right-wing imagination, the French are socialistic, lazy, oversexed, cowardly and, at their worst, anti-American. (To, be fair, Greece has received its share of mocking scorn as well.)

    But why bring the French into this spot at all? It’s not like Cadillac is competing with Peugot. And if Cadillac feels compelled to include Europeans into their spot, why not the Germans, who, by the way, also enjoy long strolls, cafes, not to mention a successfully functioning social welfare state, low unemployment, excellent healthcare and a strong economy. Why didn’t the presenter end the spot with “nicht wahr” instead of “n’est pas”?

    It’s because invoking the French is a dog whistle. The same invective hurled by the Right against our Gallic cousins is also used regularly to belittle the “takers” vs. the “makers.” And against traditional American economic structures, like cooperatives, (which go as far back as Colonial times). And to discredit just about anyone who challenges a status quo which has become a house of horrors for millions.

    This, for me, is the subtext of the spot. This is why I wrote the essay. And why, as I said in my earlier comment, it is generating so much heat.

  15. Catherine W

    It’s an effective ad in that it has generated a lot of discussion. It plays directly into the Cadillac mindset of being richer than thou. That thinking has always been a part of their ads going back to the 50’s.

    They don’t show this guy working late and never seeing his family. Nor able to spend more than 2 weeks in a year on quality time. He’s a big fish that swallowed the bait. There’s lots of little minnows that vote against their best interests because they have swallowed this too.

  16. Hi David,
    I checked back and saw you replied. I don’t deny that a commercial can have a subtext. I simply disagreed with your interpretation – that’s all. It’s my opinion. I see Americans as worshipping everything french. A trip to Paris is considered the ultimate vacation. French food and french wine are the best in the world. French fashion designers, french countryside, french chateaus and artwork….hard to beat. That’s why I think the ad agency chose France to represent Europe – even though the French don’t make a competing car. Cadillac, representing the U.S., wants to compare itself to “the best” which is represented by France. That’s my interpretation.

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