Is Cadillac a whipped underdog? That’s what I infer from the automaker’s new “Dare Greatly” campaign, from Publicis, which will kick off during Sunday’s Academy Awards broadcast. I caught the teaser ad at a Berkeley movie theater before a screening of the Best Foreign Film nominee Timbuktu, which is about the violent clash between cattle herders and religious extremists in Mali. (The dissonance between ad and movie was so thick it would have taken a cleaver to slice it. But I digress.)
Here’s the spot:
The script isn’t credited, but it’s lifted from “Citizenship in a Republic,” a 1910 speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris by Theodore Roosevelt, then one year out of the White House. The youthful-sounding female voiceover, the moody music, the slow-mo near-black-and-white imagery: they’re intended to make you think—no, not think, feel—that Something Important Is About to Happen. Something moving and portentous and great. But is that really what we’re being told?
Critics (who, as you’ve heard, don’t count) have pointed out that while the spot shows plenty of cars and car parts, none is identifiably a Cadillac. (Adweek: “We’re getting a car’s eye view, presumably from a Cadillac, but no vehicles are actually shown.”) Me? Not a concern. Instead, I focused on the text. Here it is in its entirety, artfully divided into stanzas, on the back cover of the February 16 issue of The New Yorker.
TR liked his pugilistic metaphors, and this is a powerful one. But notice what it actually says:
comes short again and again
This is a speech about defeat. It’s about losing (honorably, to be sure).
For a car company to echo these words, especially the car company that once represented the pinnacle of American-made luxury, is not just a surprise. It’s a bummer.
Could I be reading too closely? After all, high-flown public-domain quotation in the service of selling stuff has been a bit of a thing for several years now (think of the savings on copywriters’ fees!), with sometimes only a hazy connection between words and stuff. Back in 2009, Levi’s appropriated lines from Walt Whitman’s “America” in its “Go Forth” campaign (directed by Cary Fukunaga in his pre-“True Detective” period). During the 2013 Super Bowl, an ad for Dodge Ram used not only the words but the recorded voice of (dead) right-wing radioman Paul Harvey (“So God Made a Farmer”). And in an ad that ran during this year’s Super Bowl, the Carnival Corporation, parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines, also resurrected the dead, in this case the unlikely pitchman John F. Kennedy. (The audio comes from a speech he gave at a 1962 America’s Cup dinner. Needless to say, it strains credulity to imagine JFK, or any member of his extended clan, going on a Carnival cruise.)
The Cadillac version of this borrowed interest is more than a little unsettling. But I’ll grant you one thing: it’s a whole lot more palatable than that entitled jerk in last year’s “poolside” ad. Good riddance to him.
For more on the history of Cadillac as a metaphor for “the best,” see Ben Zimmer’s 2009 “On Language” column (which quotes me).