Douglas Holt writes that the world’s ‘iconic brands’ – those that embody national values and act as vessels of self-expression for their consumers – achieve their exalted status through enacting ‘identity myths.’ Coca Cola had its finger on the pulse of America when it issued its 1971 ‘Hilltop Ad’ extolling world peace, and again when it addressed underlying racial tensions with ‘Mean Joe Greene’ a decade later. Brands like Snapple, Budweiser and Harley Davidson have achieved the same, managing in the fantasy-world of the 60-second advertisement clip to encapsulate a country’s anxieties and aspirations, creating a mythic story that ultimately also sells a product.
Some brands, however, take a flying leap towards iconic status, and ultimately end up falling flat on their faces. This has been the sad result of Cadillac’s recent ‘Poolside’ ad, aired during the Oscars, and produced by the agency Rogue. Crass and inelegant, the advertisement shows a ‘successful’ middle aged white man delivering a lengthy soliloquy on the merits of hard work (read: good old-fashioned American values), the material fruits of success, and, with shocking tastelessness, the unindustrious approach of ‘other countries’ who vacation for four weeks and ‘go to cafés’ after work. The frustratingly smug, (and painfully accented), ‘n’est pas’ at the end leaves little doubt as to the identity of the purportedly laxest country in question.
The overt message at work seems to be clear: embrace tried and true American values – the Protestant work ethic, industriousness and perseverance – and you will come into material advancement, which you should guiltless enjoy, because ‘you earned it.’ What’s more, the mise en scène of these values has a distinctly political sheen – America is the most powerful country in the world because we deserve it, through our hard work, boundless curiosity and high-minded dreams. A bacchanal of unregulated capitalism and American exceptionalism ooze from the clip, which is obviously calculated to shamelessly flatter viewers.
While the ad was blunt and considered by many to be in poor taste, what was most shocking was just how far off the pulse of America its creators were. Firstly, by choosing to promote material success through hard work at a time when many Americans are questioning the validity of this paradigm seems to have been a poor tactical move. More interesting from an intercultural perspective, however, is the choice of forcing France to wear the dunce cap in this Cadillac fantasy world.
Conservative American pundits have long made the Hexagon their whipping boy, stirring up French-bashing fervor during the Iraq debacle and generally debasing the French ‘way of life’. But one has to ask, considering the lack of subtlety involved, if Cadillac ‘doth protest too much.’ As America wails in the throws of bungled health care reform, France enjoys an outstanding health care system, rated number one by the World Health Organization. The French economic model is kind to its weakest citizens, providing a secure safety net and virtually free university tuition. I am not concerned with which country has the better social model. I would merely like to express hypothesis that the Cadillac ad, while trying to bolster American pride and sell a few cars in the process, mistakenly tripped over its own national identity myth by exposing the weaker points of its supposedly superior homeland. For an identity myth to take hold, it has to touch on honest anxieties, real struggles, and actual dreams. Slapping a ‘made in the USA’ sticker on a product and puffing up your chest is not enough. If Cadillac wants to reach American audiences, they need to tap into issues that are more genuine and stop taking the easy, egocentric way out.
Poolside Cadillac ad video link here.
La marque Cadillac, en essayant dans sa pub ‘Poolside ad’ de toucher les acheteurs potentiels en prônant des valeurs telles que le zèle au travail et le succès matériel, montre à quel point elle est ignorante des enjeux contemporains du peuple américain.
By Robin Nichols
Photo credits: Guilhem Bertholet