Cadillac’s Politically Incorrect Coup

Cadillac GuySeeing Cadillac’s recent “Poolside” ad was nothing less than shocking for me. I wasn’t sure that was a good thing or not in the moment, but it is certainly more than I can say for 99% of the ads on television. Great advertising must transcend features and benefits to elicit a visceral, emotional response.

And that’s just what the Caddy ad did for me, and everyone else it seems. There’s no middle ground here. People love it or hate it, and it’s the ad everyone is talking about. There are articles and posts all over the blogosphere. Bill Maher devoted time to it on his HBO show, and now Ford has produced a response ad, a parody that echoes “Poolside” frame by frame, word for word, in an attempt to showcase what they  feel are their superior values.

In an interesting twist, my personal values are clearly aligned with the Ford message. However, I feel strongly that Cadillac has completely out-marketed Ford here with smart, gutsy, original work. Cadillac is operating from a position of vision and strength. Ford blinked, allowing its competitor to provoke them into rushing a knee-jerk response on to the air. The Ford ad is very well done, but would probably have been much more effective as an SNL-like parody rather than taking itself so seriously.

I absolutely hated the smug man played so well by the actor Neil McDonough when I first saw the Cadillac spot. This despicable (to me) character elicited such intense feelings for me that I couldn’t get him out of my mind they next day. This wasn’t an inner dialogue focused on business or intellectual issues. My values, my very core seemed threatened. I was actually upset – over a TV ad! Making matters worse was a tinge of jealousy. Sure, he’s an asshole, but he’s so self-assured, so confident. He doesn’t waste time on introspection. He’s out there making things happen, providing for his family who adores him for it, and generally basking in his success.

Even before seeing the Ford response, and despite my personal feelings, all the thinking I had done about the Cadillac guy led me to the inescapable conclusion that this was by far the best ad on television at the moment. No, it doesn’t make me want to buy a Cadillac. But I was never buying one in the first place. In fact, if someone gave me one, I’d sell it at a loss rather than be seen driving around town in it.

I may fit the demographic target for Cadillac, but their marketers know full well they have no shot with me, a life-long foreign car owner who now proudly drives a Prius. GM could possibly sell me a Chevy Volt in the very near future, but I’m not hopping into a Cadillac anytime soon, and that would include the hybrid or electric varieties.

However, as Cadillac’s research no doubt demonstrates, there is a sizable chunk of car buyers with a deep belief in American Exceptionalism. They have worked hard to build a comfortable lifestyle or still aspire to the American dream of a beautiful, spacious house with a pool, a prestigious and powerful car, and the other creature comforts that go along with success.

This is where marketing gets dicey, when we mistake our personal values for those of the target. JC Penney found this out the hard way when former Apple exec Ron Johnson tried to impose his blue state values on to a red-state, middle class brand.

Nothing is more important than empathy in marketing. Cadillac has rejected the politically correct and pushed the creative envelope in this depiction of Cadillac’s place in the American Dream.

Gawker’s piece on the Cadillac ad and Ford’s response was headlined: “Ford’s Great Parody of Cadillac’s Latest Rich-Asshole TV Ad.” It goes on to say:

“Cadillac unveiled its first electric car last month. Apparently afraid that power-lunchers might think they’d gone soft, they rolled out the World’s Douchiest Ad to tout the vehicle. Now, Ford has released a video response to Cadillac. That response, basically, is: “Don’t be a douche.””

Well, we probably all do our best in life not to be “a douche.” Still, we all have our prejudices, and only the most enlightened of us don’t feel that our values are superior to others. Vigorous discussion of values is  fine for the op-ed page, public debate and private conversation.

I’d love to sit down with Cadillac guy and set him straight. Study after study demonstrates that after our basic needs are met, money and possessions have absolutely no correlation to happiness. I do love my work and the feeling of being productive. But how great would it be to take the month of August off? I could read, write, travel, exercise, pay attention to my friends and family, and simply recharge. Better than a Cadillac, at least for me.

One could argue – and I frequently do – that those powerful gas-guzzlers aren’t just silly and completely unnecessary, but they’re inflicting serious harm to the planet and our health. (This ad does feature an electric car, but that’s beside the point as electric will be a small fraction of overall Cadillac sales and this ad is about the brand more than the model.)

But Cadillac is in the business of selling cars, not extolling the benefits of European-style democracy and social policy. As marketers, our business and creative judgments are critical, but as soon as we start thinking that every one else in the world – especially our target market – needs to embrace our own personal values, we’re lost.

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