Labor, Consumption, and the Cadillac ELR

My grandfather was an advertising executive. Whenever we laity found an advertisement to be contradictory, esoteric, or downright offensive, he would remind us that even if we didn’t understand the message, the target audience did.

I was reminded of my grandfather’s stock answer when I saw this advertisement from Cadillac for the ELR, a new hybrid automobile.

The ad is pretty offensive for anyone who thinks that it would be nice to have a café to stop into while strolling home from work, or wouldn’t mind having the entire month of August to do things like read, travel, or spend time with family. But if that’s you, then this ad is not for you, leaving the beat until the next commercial for you to howl in outrage. My grandfather would remind you that the wealthy aging frat boys who need convincing that one can drive a hybrid without sacrificing one’s masculine facade will receive the message Cadillac intended.

Its outrageousness aside, it’s worth looking at how this ad works. The car doesn’t come until the end, and most of the time is downplayed as “stuff,” which is not the real point of working. Instead it softens the viewer up for the arrival of the car by flattering him for accepting the fantasy of endless work as ingrained into some sort of national identity (also, I think we can safely stick to the male pronoun in this instance). There’s a constant invocation of the third person, an act of interpellation underscored in the line “why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?,” where the “that” are less driven foreigners, and the  we are what Benedict Anderson would call an “imagined community,” only now of people who work endlessly and have something to show for it. Now, many of us do work endlessly and have very little to show for it, but if you are cognizant of that, then once again this ad is not for you. It’s for the people who would like to identify with the speaker. That’s why it’s a good ad, because it creates a need through a wish-image of what we can have once we start out with the “right” attitude.

So what we have here is a fascinating neoliberal fantasy. Holding it allegedly puts us in company with the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Ali. It’s an eclectic group, but they did have one thing in common: they weren’t crazy! “Why do we work hard?” the speaker asks. Because we are hardworking believers.Believers in what? The answer is not supplied, but it doesn’t have to be. In this fantasy we don’t work longer hours over more weeks because that’s what we have to do to pay the rent, feed that family we have for all our high-fiving needs, or to be able to get medical care when we get sick. That falls under the category of “stuff,” the “upside” of an endless labor process that is an end unto itself. One “upside:” the Cadillac ELR. Here we have the ad’s main contradiction, because I thought the upside was the work itself? Isn’t an “upside” the desired result? Maybe not, but for the purposes of the ad it is, because after all, the point of the ad isn’t really to take pride in our labor, but to use the money we earn to go out and buy Cadillacs. And if there’s an upside, do we now admit there’s a downside? No matter, because we are now supposed to be gazing at the car, the “stuff” that was really in question all along.

This fantasy is a problem because if the work is an end unto itself, then the “downsides” don’t matter anymore, as long as you are working. It’s there in the ad: time spent not producing value is time wasted. It’s a logic that does not allow for any pursuit that cannot be reduced to the metrics quantifiable by “the market.” Instead it endorses a “do what you love” ideology, what Miya Tokumitsu calls “the unofficial work mantra of our time” in this insightful critique. As Tokumitsu persuasively argues, it’s a mantra that actually devalues labor.

A couple of other observations:

Gender and the family: While the speaker is strutting about the house preparing for work, we see a woman, presumably his wife, and two daughters. The toys lie discarded (the panda thing, the table hockey, the doll house we saw behind the couch). Instead the girl in the foreground is engaged in her homework before a model of a DNA strand, while in the background the other daughter reads, again, presumably, with an end other than pleasure.

Scene 1

The wife occupies the kitchen and receives his discarded newspaper. But she is in her work suit and drinking a cup of coffee, presumably for the caffeine and not because of the deliciousness of real gourmet coffee. Our male protagonist speaks and he’s the one who leaves the house dressed in his uniform and inside his car to face the day’s dangers! But gender binaries don’t get in the way of labor that generates measurable value, or that might equip one to engage in labor that generates measurable value. In any case, they are all incidental to the scene, they occupy the space of the house much as the furniture does.

Scene 2

Prometheanism and boredom:

Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right, we went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left, got a car up there and left the keys in it. Do you know why? Because we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.

Even as fanciful history, this statement does not make much sense, not in the least because defunding of the space program suggests that we will remain bored with the moon for the foreseeable future. This strange line celebrates the overcoming of a seemingly natural limit, an overcoming done simply for the sake of having overcome, only to admit to admit to the futility of it all. In this vision, for all of the money, planning, and yes, labor that went into the moon landings, we were not even left with something capable of engaging our interest.

Ultimately that is what is puzzling about the advertisement. Why do “we” work hard? The monologue never really answers the question, but if you’re still wondering about it by the time the ad ends, then the ad really isn’t for you.

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