"Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff?" asks actor Neal McDonough as he gazes out over his pool in new Cadillac's TV commercial before delivering a dissertation on the American Dream.
With that, the actor begins the controversial 60-second spot Cadillac that will air both before and during ABC's broadcast of the Academy Awards this Sunday night.
The "Poolside" spot created, by ad agency Rogue, is intended to serve as a "brand provocation," according to Craig Bierley, Cadillac's advertising director. Consider it mission accomplished.
The spot for the new Cadillac ELR has provoked extreme reactions since its debut during NBC's broadcast of the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics
Fans on the political right see "Poolside" as an unapologetic ode to American values. Critics on the political left see it as Ugly American chest thumping at its worst. During a time when Americans are working harder and longer for less money, others question the spot's perceived workaholic message.
Fox Business News contributor Jonathan Hoenig, a founding member of the Capitalistpig hedge fund, praised "Poolside" as a "tremendous" celebration of profit-seeking, productivity and, yes, enjoyment of material goods.
"Those are considered very declasse these days, very down. So here's a wonderful ad that actually celebrates America," Mr. Hoenig said.
But Fox Business host Neil Cavuto worried "Poolside" feeds the negative perception of the richest 1% as smug, rich bastards who are contemptuous of everyone else. It also takes chutzpah for GM, a company bailed out by American taxpayers, to preach self-reliance, Mr. Cavuto wryly noted.
Other critics have attacked the spot more bluntly. The Huffington Post declared: "Cadillac made a commercial about the American Dream -- and it's a Nightmare." Wrote Carolyn Gregoire: "The luxury car company is selling a vision of the American Dream at its worst: Work yourself into the ground, take as little time off as possible, and buy expensive sh*t (specifically, a 2014 Cadillac ELR)."
Washington Post contributor Brigid Schulte "groaned" at the sight of a "middle-aged white guy" extolling the "virtues of hard work, American style," while strolling around his fancy house, pool and $75,000 electric car.
Advertising Age interviewed Cadillac's Mr. Bierley on the strong reaction to the spot. He said the spot's been "misconstrued" by some viewers. He wanted to set the record straight. Among the misperceptions:
It's aimed at the richest 1%
Not so, says Mr. Bierley. Rather than millionaires, the spot's targeted at customers who make around $200,000 a year. They're consumers with a "little bit of grit under their fingernails" who "pop in and out of luxury" when and how they see fit, he said. "These are people who haven't been given anything. Every part of success they've achieved has been earned through hard work and hustle. . . . One of the ways they reward themselves for their hard work is through the purchase of a luxury car," he said.
It's about materialism
Go back and watch the beginning, said Mr. Bierley. Right up front, Mr. McDonough dismisses the idea the reason American work so hard is to buy "stuff." What he's really saying is that Americans work hard because that's what they love to do. Luxury cars and other expensive goodies are a byproduct of success; not the objective.
"It's basically saying hard work creates its own luck. In order to achieve it, you just have to believe anything's possible. You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in possibilities. It's really about optimism. It's really a fundamental human truth: optimism about creating your own future. It's not about materialism."
It's a "Buy American" spot
That's wrong too. Mr. McDonough references the U.S. moon landing, Bill Gates and the Wright Brothers because the ad is only designed to run in the U.S., not overseas. If "Poolside" was designed as a global ad, the references would be more global.
Cadillac does not want to "guilt" people into buying an American rather than a European luxury car, said Mr. Bierley. "The last thing in the world we want to do is comes across as: 'It's your duty to buy an American car.' I don't think anybody wakes up wanting to hear that. . . . The strategy was really to play off the consumer insights around this notion of achievement earned through hard work and hustle -- and celebrating that. Since it's a U.S.-based spot, we used metaphors to talk about other people who received their success through hard work."
It celebrates the USA's workaholic culture
Reaction is running about 3-1 in favor of the spot with the young consumer audience on YouTube, said Mr. Bierley. But some people are offended at the perceived workaholic message when millions of people are out work and others are just getting by. Again, that's not what Cadillac intended, Mr. Bierley said.
"We're not making a statement saying, 'We want people to work hard.' What we're saying is that hard work has its payoffs. Find something you love to do, do it incredibly well and there's a reward for that. Whether its personal satisfaction, whether its fulfillment, whether that's money."
It was created for the Olympics, when nationalism runs high
Wrong, said Mr. Bierley. Instead, Rogue found and cast Mr. McDonough in an early version of the spot that they used to pitch and ultimately win Cadillac's $250 million creative account last year. Cadillac and Rogue later went back and remade the spot with Mr. McDonough to create the version on-air now. "We just liked his attitude," said Mr. Bierley about the character actor who's starred on HBO's "Band of Brothers" and other shows.
It's a dissertation on American values
Sure, said Mr. Bierley. But what people forget is that still just a car ad. What made Cadillac happiest is consumers recognize ELR as an electric car -- although Mr. McDonough never states that explicitly. "It's sparked an interesting and thought-provoking debate," said Mr. Bierley.