The Smug Life – What the Cadillac ELR Ad Says About America
Here's a hint: it doesn't say anything particularly good.
But first, a shocking truth nugget!
What I’m about to tell you may come as an absolute shock. It is imperative, however, that you hold on past this shocking revelation as the meat of what follows is entirely dependent on your digestion and understanding of the 30-kiloton bomb that I am about to drop on you. Only once you wrap your head around this idea will you understand some of why I was so profoundly baffled by the Cadillac ELR ad, entitled “Poolside.”
If you have adequately strapped yourself in, I shall proceed.
Not everyone in the United States is a millionaire, and we are not necessarily the hardest-working country in the world.
There you have it.
According to Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Databook for 2013, there is about $301,140 worth of wealth per adult across a population of about 239,279,000 citizens over the age of 18 (as of 2013) in the United States of America.
While nearly a clean third of American citizens find themselves making between $10,000 and $100,000 on an annual basis, there are as many Americans making between $100,000 and $1 million as there are making less than $10,000 a year (30.7 percent).
The other 5.5 percent of America? They make over a million dollars a year. And if you skip on down to page 146 of the report, you find that this elite group of Americans controls 62.4 percent of the wealth in the United States.
Ah, a grossly unbalanced economy. Now that’s more like it! America: hot dogs, baseball, the never-ending crush of class disparity, and—of course—Cadillacs!
Now, I think I can admit that I’m smart enough to understand that this ad is not necessarily targeted at attracting that 30.7 percent of Americans who are no doubt struggling enough with paying the rent as it is. If you were Cadillac, would you try to sell a $75,000 electric car to peons who can barely keep the electricity running on a monthly basis?
Hell, it’s entirely likely that the Cadillac ELR ad is not even intended to reach that 33 percent making $100k or less a year provided the vehicle’s grotesquely bloated price point. Because the only thing better than a redressed Volt EV with a Cadillac badge, after all, is a redressed Volt EV with a Cadillac badge that costs you almost three times more.
But this is not the issue I have with the ad, because the first rule of advertising is to know your audience. If you want to sell people on Scandal or Betrayal or Revenge or whatever one word-titled show ABC is trotting out there, you’ve got to play up that eponymous concept hard (and probably quite a bit of the sex while you’re at it). If you want to sell people on FX’s Justified (not like you should have to work very hard at that), you need to know to reach out and grab people who love good crime novels and snappy dialogue. And if you want to sell a Cadillac, you need to push luxury. That much just makes sense.
All of this explains why our setting for the Cadillac ELR ad takes place in and around a posh home. This is not your one bedroom apartment that you share with your partner, but this ad wasn’t made for you, as Charlie Wollborg of Crain’s Detroit Business points out. If you’re from the other side of the tracks where the pastures are not quite as green, get a good look now: this is what luxury looks like.
And, damn, is it ever smug.
The Cadillac ELR Ad: Life Isn’t Just About Stuff (But I’ve Got Plenty of It)
What better way to sell the ELR to a wide audience than to call upon Neal McDonough—who fans of Justified will rightly remember as the neurotic and manipulative drug lord Robert Quarles in Season Three—and have him espouse the quintessentially American values of hard work while strolling through a multi-million dollar home that 70 percent of America could never reasonably afford.
The ad opens at his back as he faces out over an expansive patio to his left, a lush green yard to his right, and a seemingly endless swimming pool right before him.
“Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff?” he pontificates as he gestures as all of this stuff.
Man, don’t you sometimes wish all of your hard work would net you such insignificant stuff?
Now, we can avoid entirely the argument of the wealthy working harder than the other 90 percent of America. While I think the argument could be made that nobody works harder than a single parent who is fighting to keep bread on the table and a roof over the head of their children, the idea of who works hardest in America is not what is at the heart of the Cadillac ELR ad.
No, it’s the idea that America (specifically, its upper crust) works harder than everyone else.
And that’s ridiculous.
McDonough goes on to chide other countries for strolling to the café after work and taking August off, wondering, “Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?”
(The correct answer would probably be because we largely can’t afford to take any time off, but that might depend just on what your definition of we is. But I digress.)
“Because we’re crazy-driven, hard-workin’ believers, that’s why!”
If your compulsion is to roll your eyes at this, you are not alone.
Another Tangent! But This Time…IT’S PERSONAL!
A personal story: I spent more than two years teaching at an after school academy in Korea where, day in and day out, children between the ages of 5 and 13 would come in after they had already endured a full day of school in order to continue their English studies. Their goal: to gain entry into the country’s prestigious middle or high schools so that they would receive the best education possible and significantly increase their chances of getting into an international school or a top-flight college or maybe even study abroad.
The six hours or more a week that these kids spend at the academy is just another pound of flesh on top of the seven or so hours they spend at their regular schools on a daily basis, the incalculable hours they are forced to study, and—if they’re lucky enough to have a life left outside of academics—their time spent practicing Tae Kwon Do or playing baseball or learning an instrument. Notice how little of that actually has to do with being a child.
Kids in Korea endure this from Kindergarten all the way through young adulthood because they want nothing more than to have a good job and make their families proud. Many of them get exactly where they want to be through incessant hard work and unyielding determination.
I have seen children so worn down and browbeaten that they have almost no other option but to come apart at the seams. I have heard a five-year-old girl tell me that she knows that she will never live up to her parents’ expectations. I have had a child beg me not to give him a B+ on a quiz because he did not want to be scolded for an hour.
But these kids don’t quit. Ever. I told more than one student that they were smarter and more capable than they could imagine, and they roundly denied their potential because they are nonetheless raised to be humble. And that is why Korean children remain among the smartest, most driven, and most hardworking students in the entire world while we continue to fall back on our prior accomplishments…just like the Cadillac ELR ad does.
Why Does the Cadillac ELR Ad Presume That America Appears Crazy to Other Countries?
“Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul? Ali?” He talks about how America, so engrossed with its own power, became bored with the moon, and the fact that the lunar rover is still sitting on the Moon with the keys in it because “we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.”
Uh, Neal? The crazy-driven, hard-working believers in China might like a word with you.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Cadillac ELR ad: it manages to be smug and self-serving without ever even hitting upon the environmental benefits of driving an electric car. Seriously, were it not for McDonough unplugging the ELR and holding it like the gun with which he threatened to kill Raylan Givens and a brief shot of the in-dash touchscreen showing the battery’s charge, you’d never know this was an ad for an electric car. Why, you’d almost think it was just another ad from a luxury automaker trying to convince you to buy their product because it will make you look better than everyone else.
The fact is, the Cadillac ELR ad is a superlatively insulting amalgamation of jingoism and upper crust smuggery. Not only is the insinuation that America is the hardest working country in the world debatable at best, but idea that we have gotten where we have today only because of the 10 percent that controls 75 percent of the wealth and can afford to buy an overpriced luxury EV is insulting to any soldier who has ever laid down their life, any parent who has ever given their last dime to better the life of their child, and any public school teacher who has to forgo their rightfully-earned Augusts off because their salary makes it difficult to make ends meet.
“Other countries think we’re nuts,” McDonough says during the ad. From experience, I can affirm this to be true, though definitely not for the reasons you’re suggesting here.
At Last, A Conclusion! (SPOILERS: Cadillac is Way off the Mark)
And, perhaps most surprisingly here, the Cadillac ELR ad fails to understand what its audience is. As Jalopnik’s Zac Estrada points out, it’s not going to convince any legacy Caddy owners to go electric, and it’s not slick enough to ward affluent EV buyers away from Tesla.
What it gives us instead is an ad, played for a global audience to see during the Winter Olympics, where a millionaire actor tells us that America is better than your country because we have people who work hard, own swimming pools, and drive vastly overpriced electric luxury cars.
The idea at work here: you too can sit smugly behind the wheel of a Cadillac ELR if only you have the good fortune to be 1) born in America 2) a hard worker. Because only Americans are hard working, and only hard working people are American (except for the poor shmucks who can’t afford a $77,000 car; they’re probably just broke because they’re lazy or not American enough).