Driving Against Traffic: Is Ford’s Parody More Smug Than Cadillac’s “Poolside” ELR Ad?

It seems to me that most of the folks who write about cars and the car biz (and also commenters outside the automotive world) who have bothered to comment about Cadillac’s ELR commercial, “Poolside”, with actor Neal McDonough, have been put off by the ad’s unapologetic stand that while working hard is its own reward, success does bring with it some material benefits. “Smug”, “hubris”, and “ugly American” were some of the reactions. As usual, I’m going to take a contrarian view. It also seems to me that less than 1% of those who are offended because they think Cadillac is appealing to the so-called 1% are actually in Cadillac’s target market, so their complaints are moot. As a matter of fact, the ad was deliberately provocative, focused more on promoting the Cadillac brand than the ELR car, and all of those critics ended up spelling the Cadillac brand name quite correctly. Now Ford has come along with a web-only commercial for the C-Max Energi plug in hybrid, “Upside. Anything is Possible”, that tries to parody the Cadillac ad but falls into the same trap as those critics, not only amplifying Cadillac’s message but also coming off as possibly more smug than McDonough’s character.

For what it’s worth, Cadillac has explained that their ad was not targeted at the wealthiest 1% of Americans, but rather those making about $200,000 a year, perhaps small business owners, those with a “little bit of grit under their fingernails”, as Craig Bierley, Cadillac’s advertising director, put it in an interview with Advertising Age. For an ad pitching an aspirational brand to people who could be described as self-made, I think it was pitch perfect.

You could say that the Ford ad also found the right tone. The C-Max ad was smart in the sense that by making fun of another car company’s ad that many in the commentariat already disliked, it was sure to be noticed and shared and tweeted, guaranteed to go viral. That was by design as Ford isn’t planning on buying time on any television networks to run the ad. The design worked and Ford got a lot of publicity for the C-Max Energi out of their parody, including this post. Still, it was less than brilliant in that it fell right into the trap set by Cadillac and its ad agency. Everyone who mentioned the Ford ad did so in the context of saying the name Cadillac.

As for its content, instead of a fictional suburban white male businessman in the Cadillac ad, the C-Max Energi ad depicts a real person, a black woman named Pashon Murray, the operator of Detroit Dirt, located in the city. Detroit Dirt collects food scraps from restaurants and manure from zoos, to compost into rich soil to be used in urban agriculture. It’s as though Ford wanted to hit all of the notes that would appeal to those put off by the Cadillac ad. Cooperative, community-minded urban farmer vs self interested suburban businessman. That’s fine. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, Ford is trying to sell a car with green cred, and I suppose from the bumper stickers I see on some Priuses, the Venn diagram of save-the-world folks and alternative energy enthusiasts are concentric circles. The C-Max parody ad makes business sense. The thing is that Murray is so earnestly trying to save the world, and so certain of her own righteousness in doing so that to me she comes off as more smug than the guy in the suburbs with the Caddy.

The two ads are mirror images of each other, in more than one way. If McDonough’s character is a Randian (Ayn or Paul, take your pick) individualist, Murray is more of a community activist. Just as much as people not targeted by the ELR ad aren’t finding its message appealing, I think that a lot of the people who are targeted by the Cadillac ad are not going to find the C-Max Energi ad appealing either. Not only won’t it get them thinking about buying the Ford, its attitude will amplify the message of the Cadillac ad, and encourage them in thinking that they should indeed enjoy the fruits of their labors. Why listen to the smug lady who thinks they don’t give a damn about other people?

Here’s what the fictional Cadillac ELR owner says at the end of that ad:

It’s pretty simple, you work hard, you create your own luck and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est pas?

Here is what the real life Ford C-Max Energi driver says to wrap up the ad she is in:

Look. It’s pretty simple, you work hard. You believe that anything is possible and you try to make the world better. You try. As for helping the city grow good green healthy vegetables, that’s the upside of giving a damn. N’est pas?

Maybe it’s just me but I think the fictional Caddy owner takes himself a lot less seriously than the real woman pitching the hybrid Ford. He’s not trying to make the world better, he’s not helping “the city” grow healthy food, he’s not even claiming to give a damn. Also, the cynic in me can’t help but note that in all likelihood, Ms. Murray was reciting a script, written by someone at Ford’s ad agency. It is after all, a parody, and parodies must follow the same form as the original. Someone likely told her what to say, and as smug as her affect comes across, in that context of reading the words of others her saying that she’s trying “to make the world better” and that she’s “giving a damn” seems more fake than Cadillac’s fictional self-made man.

As an aside, I’ll note that there are a lot of people who scoff at the notion of a self-made man or woman (cf. “You didn’t build that”), who think that the concept of individual accomplishment hogs the credit from the collective that supposedly makes those accomplishments possible because the government build roads and pays police, or something like that. Those same people who don’t believe that a single person can’t change his or her own financial fortune think that they themselves can make the entire world better. Yes, I know the script said, “you try”, but does her affect betray any doubt about the efficacy of her actions?

Now I don’t want to be unfair to Ms. Murray. Detroit has so much vacant land that I think urban farming may actually make sense in the city, though the struggles that businessman John Hantz has gone through trying to establish an actual working farm should be a wakeup call for anyone thinking that it’s going to be as easy as just planting a few seeds in a vacant lot.

Detroit Dirt says that one of their goals is to create business, but I can’t find anyplace on their website that indicates that they actually sell the compost that they make.  They do have a number of corporate “partners”, which I’m guessing means “donors”. Ford is one of those partners (perhaps they donated that C-Max in the ad) and their representative told Fox News that the ad is as much of a “celebration” of Detroit Dirt’s work as it is a promotion of the C-Max Energi. Ford has been eager to promote their environmental sensitivity and their involvement in urban agriculture in Detroit dovetails well with the “living roof” and other environmental projects at the company’s Rouge Complex in nearby Dearborn. I can understand how it makes sense to Ford. Whether the ad will ultimately be beneficial to Murray and Detroit Dirt is less clear.

According to their website, one of Detroit Dirt’s other partners is General Motors. I wonder if GM gives a damn about one of their beneficiaries helping a competitor implicitly mock GM’s customers as being self-centered and greedy.

Which ad do you think is more smug?

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