American car companies love to remind us they’re American. That’s nothing new. Chevrolet, of course, is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. More recently, George Washington defeated the British behind the wheel of a Dodge Challenger.
But in the last two weeks, we’ve seen two new car ads that go beyond merely wrapping themselves in the American flag. The ads, for the 2015 Chrysler 200 and 2014 Cadillac ELR, display an ugly streak of jingoism.
“We will build your car”
Against a montage of rodeos, cheerleaders, and baseball games, Bob Dylan proclaims all the ways we’re the first and the best. We have vision, pride, and true cool. Our assembly line workers have hearts and souls. All these things, Dylan insists, “you can’t import.”
“Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone,” Dylan concludes. “We will build your car.”
The first, and most obvious question for this ad’s creators, the agency GlobalHue, is what foreign-made cars is Dylan referring to? The 2015 Chrysler 200’s key “import” competitors are built in Ohio (Honda Accord), Kentucky and Indiana (Toyota Camry), and Tennessee (Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat). I also couldn’t help but notice there was no reference to letting the Italians—who now own Chrysler — cook your pasta.
Beyond the complexities of what actually constitutes foreign lies a more basic question: why does it matter? Before you insult my intelligence in the comments section, let me say I know why it matters. I grew up in a town that suffered badly when a General Motors factory closed (Framingham, Massachusetts) and I live in Southeast Michigan, where not just the assembly workers, but also doctors, lawyers, and writers rely on the health of the American auto industry. American cars are not important because we have diners, Route 66, Bob Dylan, or factory workers. I’ve visited assembly lines in Mexico, Japan, England, and Germany. The workers on those lines appeared to have hearts and souls, too.
Now, let’s re-watch the brilliant ad Chrysler showed at the 2011 Super Bowl:
Note how this advertisement consciously avoids the old tropes about American versus foreign manufacturing. It doesn’t even say, “America,” until the very end. Rather, it presents an honest picture of Detroit, using the embattled city as a metaphor for ethos we all hold dear, like hard work and resilience. If anything, there’s a subtle dig at the rest of the country for forsaking Detroit and these ethos. “We’re certainly no one’s Emerald City,” the narrator reminds viewers.
“We’re crazy, hard-working believers.”
Chrysler isn’t the only domestic automaker thinking it can sell more cars by telling us how superior we are. The first advertisement for the 2014 Cadillac ELR, which was developed by Lowe Campbell Ewald and debuted last week, indulges in clichés similar to the Chrysler commercial. We went to the moon! We have Bill Gates! But the commercial’s core message is that Americans work harder than people in “other countries.”
“Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the café. They take August off,” explains the pitchman (played by Neal McDonough — apparently Macaulay Culkin was not available to reprise his role as Richie Rich).
This spiel, and the potshots at Europe, will probably appeal to Red State conservatives. Unfortunately for Cadillac, most in that audience are unlikely to buy an electric car from so-called Government Motors. (Even those who supported the bailout may chortle when the ad proclaims, “You work hard; you create your own luck.”)
The ad opens Cadillac to uncomfortable questions. Like, if Europeans are so lazy and unproductive, how come their luxury brands have been cleaning Cadillac’s clock since the 1980s? Why did Cadillac hire a former BMW executive (the very European Uwe Ellinghaus) to run its marketing? How does the brand expect to establish itself in Europe, as it still hopes to, if it derides Europeans? And, finally, what’s a Cadillac ELR? The ad never really bothers to tell us.
Contrast this with rap artist Macklemore’s ode to Cadillacs, “White Walls.”
Macklemore, too, presents Cadillac as the reward for American ambition and hard work. But he does so with tongue firmly in cheek, and without alienating anyone. He also shows lots of actual Cadillacs.
To be perfectly clear, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating America, and there’s nothing wrong with Detroit-based automakers celebrating their role in the American story. The problem is with trumpeting American superiority as an argument for buying American cars. It’s the difference between saying Chevrolets are as American as baseball and saying that baseball is much better than foreign sports and thus Chevrolets are better than foreign cars (a line of reasoning we’re unlikely to hear so long as Chevrolet is locked into its sponsorship of the Manchester United soccer team). The Chrysler and Cadillac ads — both of which, it must be noted, were developed by local Michigan-based agencies — display the insular chauvinism that got American carmakers in trouble.