As the Internet echoes with near-universal condemnation of Pepsi's short-lived Kendall Jenner ad, I thought it was time to re-publish a piece I wrote in February about a similar but less obvious overreach by Cadillac.
Pepsi managed to offend its prized millennial audience by trivializing the battle for human rights, raising the too-often repeated question: What the hell were they thinking? Clearly, they weren't thinking about their audience’s real lives and what, if any, legitimate role the Pepsi brand might play in people’s real lives.
It's time for brands to learn that you can’t co-opt a cultural movement with a vague tagline. Whether it’s Cadillac’s “Dare Greatly” or Pepsi’s less grammatical but similar “Live Bolder,” it won’t work anymore. Authenticity is not just a word, it has to be a way of life. The audience has a fundamental demand: No more fake reality. Time to get real.
The piece below, originally published by Pando Daily, has been edited to add references to the Pepsi debacle.
that dishonest Cadillac Ad
Now Cadillac has entered America’s political battle over the Trump administration with 90 words of old-fashioned, tear-jerking copywriting that includes some lies and demonstrates much of what’s wrong with advertising.
The misleading 60-second TV spot appears to have warmed the hearts of many Oscar-viewers and ad professionals, if Twitter praise and glowing trade press accounts are an indication. But the emotionally manipulative soundtrack and narration don’t stand much scrutiny, as the former editor of Advertising Age pointed out in a tweet that directed the Cadillac commercial to “Shut up.”
Using Cadillac’s two-year-old “Dare Greatly” tagline, the ad asserts (without evidence, as The New York Times might say) that “all it takes” to bring America together is a "willingness to dare." Actually, of course, it takes lawsuits, marches, votes, the continuation of a 200-plus-year fight to expand democracy and end racism and, ultimately, it will take a sea change in American culture.
Judged against the concrete actions of dozens of other American companies—especially the biggest players in Silicon Valley — who joined the legal fight against Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, Cadillac’s empty words and lack of action don’t look daring at all, just as Pepsi's faux protest looked far less than bold.
The Cadillac ad intentionally confuses personal gestures and acts of kindness with national policy that currently is aimed at dividing America based on race, religion and gender. They are not the same. And while Amazon, Starbucks, Facebook, Google, Lyft and many others have joined the amicus briefs against Trump’s most unconstitutional orders, Cadillac came to the battle with nothing but 90 words of mediocre copywriting, some old film clips and a piece of ponderous music.
The commercial begins by saying America is not actually a divided country. That’s just “...what they tell us, right?” the narrator asks. He then proclaims, “But what they don’t tell you, what doesn’t make the news is this.” And the ad shows quick film clips, all of which appear to have been lifted from news coverage. It was this piece of dishonesty that prompted former Ad Age editor Ken Wheaton to post this tweet:
One of the clips in particular is a scene from 2008 when Sara Tucholsky, then a softball player for Western Oregon University, hit a home run and, trying to tag first base, blew out her knee so badly she couldn’t walk. Two players from the other team, Central Washington, picked her up and carried her around the bases so she could score. That opponents-coming-together drama was covered by Portland’s Oregonian newspaper, made national news and was featured and celebrated on ABC-TV’s ESPY Awards as the “Best Moment” of 2008 in sports. Oh, yeah, all three players involved were also on “The Ellen Show.”
The dishonesty of falsely blaming journalism for not reporting feel-good stories pales when compared to claiming Cadillac has long represented the “idea that while we’re not the same, we can be one.” Cadillac was founded in 1902 by a group led by Henry M. Leland, who had a good auto engine, pioneered standardization for replaceable auto parts, ran his workplace paternalistically, fought the autoworkers’ unions, sold his cars as a luxury for the few and incorporated no ideas about American oneness into his new company.
A Cadillac spokesman confirmed on the phone that it was Cadillac’s intent to say the country is not, in fact, divided. He said, however, it wasn’t their intent to say the ad’s feel-good clips “had never been seen in the news.” Cadillac just meant that come-together moments are “not seen as often” as divisive moments, he said. Asked to square the difference between what he was claiming the ad intended to say and what it actually says, the spokesman said he’d send a “prepared statement” from Cadillac CMO Uwe Ellinghaus that would answer all questions about the car maker’s intentions.
Ellinghaus’s statement, vague and cliché-filled, said Cadillac wants to “celebrate the spirit of America as much as the spirit of the brand, namely optimism, forward thinking and boldness. They have always been staples of the American Dream.” Ellinghaus, who is German-born, concluded, “...we can move the world forward — together." That last word apparently addressed the unity Cadillac says is and should be our common American reality.
What the heck, it’s just an ad, right? That appears to be the ad industry’s view. But the time of ads being just ads seems to have faded into the pre-Trump past. Don’t ads have an obligation to be true? Especially in a post-advertising, digital mediascape where, as The New York Times’s latest advertising says, “The truth is more important now than ever.”
Experience in advertising, various FTC regulations, common sense, the consensus around common decency, consumer-driven boycotts and other evidence suggest that the stories advertising narrates can no longer be “non-political” and actually have the same obligation as journalism to be true. They must, at the very least, do more than create an inauthentic or fantasy façade if they want to make a positive impact in an age of ubiquitous, digital media, fake news, polarized electorates and presidential lies.
Telling the truth is morally correct, especially when it’s hard. Telling the truth makes rational and emotional sense. But Cadillac, Pepsi and all halfway decent brand stewards also know or should know that the truth makes the most business sense, too.
Despite the rise of fake news, despite the short-term power of some lies, most people, in the end, hate to be fooled. The stories we tell— whether news, novels, Oscar-winning movies or just ads — must come out of and be consonant with the audience’s deeply experienced reality. On that score, Cadillac’s ad — like Pepsi's even more egregious effort to create a false reality — fails utterly.