Advertising the American Dream

Maybe you’ve seen the commercial above for the new Cadillac ELR…? It’s been understandably lambasted for the way it relies on “American Dream” rhetoric to sell a car.  Everyman actor Neal McDonough is obnoxiously smug, and the appeal to what makes America great resorts to downright icky sanctimony and casual insults about what “other countries” are like. We are strong-willed and hardworking and awesome in every way. They flounce around with long vacations and a devil-may-care work/life balance that prioritizes cafés. Yeah, it’s pretty bad.

But I’m interested in the part near the beginning in which Johnny Works-a-lot asks, “Why aren’t you like that?” …and then… “Why aren’t we like that?” Don’t a lot of ads utilize an us/them rhetoric that practically chants “USA! USA!” throughout its script? Think every Chevy truck commercial you’ve ever seen that sells the image of a rugged dude in dusty boots embodying some independent American spirit. While they’ve become predictable, I’m not sure they’re seen as all that controversial.

Or, consider this famous oldie-but-goodie, brought to you by Coke:

Part of what gave this beloved ad its fame was its lovely inclusiveness, showcasing people from all over the world sharing something together. There’s certainly no doubt the Coca-Cola company sells across the globe and has created different incarnations of “the real thing” for different countries. That said, however, the big tent (where apparently everyone is able to speak, or at least sing in, English), is a distinctly American export and has come to advertise its authenticity through its multicultural flare. The global variety successfully creates enough distance from Coke’s small-town Georgia origins to inoculate the power behind the potion—namely, Confederate lieutenant John Stith Pemberton’s quest for a cure for the morphine habit he developed after being on the receiving end of a wound in the Civil War. What we’re ultimately left with is an unironic juxtaposition that makes sense of the home being bought for “the world” in the ad’s dreamy fantasy somehow being able to contain “apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtledoves.” It’s a specifically Anglo-American fantasy, after all. It’s just that, this time, instead of a $75,000 car, the American protagonist is buying the world a home stocked with honey and apples and ice-cold Cokes.

So, is the Cadillac commercial controversial because of what it says, or is it controversial because it actually says what seems to be lurking beneath a host of ads used to sell American products?

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