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Why This Bizarre Cadillac Ad Is Great News for Tesla

There are plenty of people willing to buy an expensive electric car. Too bad Cadillac has no idea why.
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Cadillac is now selling a $75,000 electric car. To get you to buy it, it's created an ad celebrating the unending, joyless pursuit of stuff.

In one sense, the ad has done its job. It's got us talking about Cadillac. To get that conversation going, Cadillac glorifies unthinking adherence to materialism, and plays into stereotypes by casting that materialism as uniquely American. In the ad, actor Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers, Boomtown, Desperate Housewives) strides through a modernist mansion, barely acknowledging his wife and kid (or at least that's who we assume they are), extolling the virtues of nonstop work and mocking people in other countries who take vacation time and stop to sip the espresso. This is not supposed to be ironic. It's supposed to make you want to buy a car.

What Cadillac doesn't seem to understand is that if you really wanted to buy an electric car, it would be called a Tesla.

In the Cadillac ad, the car is clearly intended as a status symbol, up there with the house, the pool, the attractive wife, and the unobtrusive kid. Unfortunately, this isn't what the cool kids are into right now. Sure, Marissa Mayer buys artwork and likes designer clothes, but Mark Zuckerberg is wearing hoodies and slaughtering his own pigs, for Pete's sake. Sheryl Sandberg was recently named to Forbes' billionaires list, but how do we know she's really successful? She could go public with the fact that she leaves work at 5 o'clock.

The one remaining status symbol among the Silicon Valley tech set--and with the exception of Wall Street, that's where the money is--is a Tesla, an electric luxury car from the startup founded by Elon Musk. You don't hear people brag about their vacation homes. No one calls attention to his or her complicated mechanical watch, which can easily cost as much as several cars, unless you bring it up first. Mention Screaming Eagle, and you're as likely to end up in a conversation about the vintner's small runs and marketing prowess as you are the quality of its five-figure Cabernet Sauvignon.

Owning a Tesla is different. It's the one thing left--the one thing--that it's somehow OK to brag about. People will find a way to drop the fact that they own a Tesla into the most unrelated conversations, a propos of absolutely nothing. Even entrepreneurs romanticizing their long hours, huge credit-card bills, and ramen dinners will drop in a reference to their Tesla. When I try to ask, politely, how one can afford a Tesla on a ramen budget, the entrepreneur will confess that actually, he shares a Tesla with someone else, making it no more expensive than say, an Audi. (Somehow, Audi ownership is compatible with ramen. Don't ask me.)

Tesla owners don't love their cars just because no one else can afford one, or at least they're not going to say that. Instead, they gloat over rising fuel prices and the long lines of the great unwashed waiting to fill their cars with--yuck!--gasoline. Tesla owners charge their cars while they sleep, thank you very much. Nothing makes a Tesla owner happier than to explain to an innocent bystander that the car is not only designed and sold by a U.S. company but also manufactured at a plant in Fremont, Calif. The fact that Tesla's founder, Elon Musk, was born in South Africa but became a U.S. citizen is just the icing on the sustainably-baked cake.

For these members of the 1 percent--who can always buy a Prius--success isn't about an expansive kitchen and jingoistic chest-beating. It's about having something fun and beautiful that still seems environmentally responsible. It's about energy independence. It's about embracing the best--not the worst--of this crazy country of ours. Those are the new status symbols.

Tesla gets that. Somehow, Cadillac gets that, or they wouldn’t have made an electric car in the first place. Yet somehow, they missed it entirely.

Last updated: Mar 6, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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