Why the Cadillac ELR TV commercial is a very bad idea

Cadillac ELR commercial 2Rex Parker, professor of transportation design, at Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, called me last week and expressed distress and frustration with Cadillac’s “Poolside” ELR TV commercial prominently featured in the Winter Olympics (and in the photo to the left). Parker, a former designer with major automakers, had a lot to say about it being misunderstood overseas, fueling more tension and misunderstanding during a time when US TV commercials go global and viral through Youtube and social media. His comments speak to what I see as being the most significant trend shaping the near-term future of the auto industry – globalization. As I’ve covered and commented upon many times in Green Auto Market, automakers and suppliers are now truly multi-national conglomerates serving markets in North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Chinese OEMs and suppliers are the most obvious example, as Fisker Automotive, Volvo, General Motors, BYD, Tesla Motors, and others would tell you. It’s not a good time to be bragging about the US being No. 1 in everything, nor is it accurate; and it rubs against ideals that a lot of people still have about this country – a land of equality in all things regardless of where you live.

The main issue Parker has with the Cadillac ad is that many people around the world won’t get the satirical, humorous angle – and will likely see it as an extreme symbol of stereotypical American arrogance and wealthy lifestyle perks. As you can see here, Parker doesn’t hold back on expressing his opinions on auto industry trends. Here are a few points he made on the phone last week……

  • Americans traveling abroad will usually tell you this type of TV commercial is a very bad idea. Parker was in France when this commercial hit the airwaves, and it inflamed French viewers. This type of message hurts Americans traveling abroad.
  • Parker, who is half Brazilian and half American, was in Brazil last summer when a street riot in his US hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif., got a lot of media attention (which I can attest to, being stuck on Pacific Coast Highway while attempting to drive through Huntington Beach during this unexpected debacle). Brazilians were informed about it while it was going on – which is ironic given that it was a modest riot without casualties. But the internet gave them instantaneous information – and what happens in the US is taken very seriously in Brazil and around the world.
  • The Cadillac commercial conveys “American arrogance and sets us back generations,” Parker said. The days of 1950’s US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explaining US foreign policy are long gone, he said.
  • I would also add, having been raised by a World War II vet with plenty of lively tales that I heard while growing up, that the days of post-WWII gratitude to the US are long gone. US traditions for individual rights, personal freedom and expression, holding elections, having open markets for developing industries, technology breakthroughs, and enjoying multi-media entertainment, will continue to influence what people around the world perceive and value; but toying with images and messages of what others resent, and sometimes hate, about the US, is not a good way to sell cars or improve international relations.
  • You can certainly make the case that the US government is dominated by an autocracy of interest groups who’ve stuffed pockets with lots of campaign contributions; and that the US has serious social issues to deal with – such as the brutal impact crystal methamphetamine is having in a lot of communities. You can also talk to people who’ve lived in or visited other countries around the world that are quite unstable and struggling – they’ll explain why they live in the US and probably won’t be leaving. Those are better images to convey in a TV commercial, as you can typically see watching TV lately. If you were watching the Winter Olympics, you probably saw Chevrolet’s new campaign called “The New Us.” It shows a diverse range of families under the theme, “What it means to be a family hasn’t changed; what a family looks like, has. This is the new us.”
  • Sell the car:  The best performing and most memorable car commercials show off the car – it might be driving up a hillside at peak performance, or featuring a young couple or family traveling together and feeling good. General Motors’ Cadillac division has done a great job for about 20 years now in selling the product in its ad campaigns; the ELR has what people are impressed about with GM’s Voltec drivetrain, and with what Cadillac designers have placed into platforms and dashboard panels. The Cadillac ELR “Poolside” commercial only shows the car being charged and its dashboard control panel for a few seconds. The commercial’s agenda looks like something else besides marketing the product.

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