Cadillac: Walk Softly And Carry Your Stick-Shift?

  • by February 19, 2015
"It is not the critic who counts” is the opening line for this new and unexpectedly highfalutin’ Cadillac spot, which breaks at the Oscars this Sunday.

So I guess as a critic, I’m out.

But that’s okay. I’ll elbow my way back in, because the lovely, slow-mo visuals that track downtown Manhattan and Dumbo caught my eye. I am nothing if not pretentious. And I loved the opening  shot of the cobblestones in and around the Meatpacking District, and the striking sound design under the voiceover. It reminded me of the great sound in the Oscar contender “Birdman.”

The words piqued my interest too, although they are a bit antique — and once again, leave me uncounted, in that they keep earnestly referring to “the man.” Still, they’re fearless, muscular, and human enough to provide some old-time inspiration. They talk about giving credit to the man who is “actually in the arena… whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,” and who, if he fails, at least fails while “daring greatly.”



“Dare Greatly” is the new Cadillac tagline; the words come from a soaring speech that Teddy Roosevelt, our greatly daring 26th president, delivered in Paris, at the Sorbonne, in the spring of 1910. First problem with the spot: TR is not credited anywhere, which creates a disconnect, because we need some historical context. Secondly, the excerpt is read by a rather soothing contemporary female voice, which in and of itself is nice, but creates another distancing in processing what she is actually saying about TR’s visionary cult of manhood.

Another problem is that this exact combination — take a great man’s historical speech, and match it to some video with an elevated aesthetic, slap a logo on the end, and voila, you have an awards contender — is overused by now.

One example from the Super Bowl was the visually dazzling Carnival Cruise spot that used a little-known JFK speech about the life-giving properties of water, and that “we all come from the sea,” matched to some majestic shots of cruise ships on clear blue waters. Many viewers thought the elevated tone didn’t match the Carnival name, while others thought it was a laughable positioning, since cruise ships are huge polluters.

But in comparison with the Cadillac spot, at least it used JFK’s own inimitable voice. And boats do sail on the sea.

It’s an even bigger redux in the automotive category, since Chrysler got there already with “Imported from Detroit,” in spots with Eminem and Clint Eastwood that tore up Super Bowls past, and also didn’t show the car until the very end. Dodge’s “God Made A Farmer” used a similar combination of famous historical words matched with images.

And though the “Imported from New York” images in this Cadillac spot are art-school beautiful, they lose all meaning, since they neither match the voiceover or make sense for the car.

Let’s start with the downtown types we see crossing streets in slow motion in the spot. Wait, so these are the rough riders of 2015? The hipster in the knit cap and jean jacket who straddles the curb, looking for a taxi? The people in line in Soho in the morning to buy their coffee? These are the men with “dust, sweat, and blood” on their faces?

Isn’t it more like foam from their latte Americanos stuck in some of their facial hair? Honestly, are these people — the “cool,” downtown, free-range, handcrafting, eco-friendly types — ever going to buy a Cadillac? Is Cadillac a car for art students?

And speaking of disconnects, one of the biggest ironies here is the French connection. TR famously gave the speech in France. And last year’s much-talked-about Caddy commercial, which ignited a firestorm of controversy, starred a swaggering, middle-aged, Republican-type guy who bragged about working hard and never taking the summer off for a vacation. And that was his punch line — making fun of the French.

Though it came off as arrogant and ugly in philosophy, the spot actually talked to its target audience. 

Whereas this spot, the first from Cadillac’s new agency, Publicis, is beautiful, really easy on the eyes. But there is no there there, never mind “dare” there. I don’t think the creators actually get that the sound and visuals also require a genuine story.

What’s more, most buyers want to see the car of the future, rather than get caught up in what seemed cool to the fashion crowd in the old cast-iron, industrial neighborhoods of the past. Roosevelt wanted Americans to man up and show some mettle. And though we know this is a tease, there’s an absence of substance, in addition to the over-stylized absence of metal.

13 comments about "Cadillac: Walk Softly And Carry Your Stick-Shift?".
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  1. Steven Lentz from, February 19, 2015 at 5:58 p.m.

    Once again Barbara, an excellent commentary. Since it involves cars I digress. After a minor explosion yesterday at the Exxon-Mobil refinery here in LA, gas prices jump 10 cents today. Minor, meaning no huge fire, 4 minor injuries, all released. Today, EM spokesman Todd Spitler, yes SPIT-ler, told the LA Times "we regret any inconvenience". Seems like a multi-billion dollar energy corp. could
    hire Todd M. Sorry as a spokesman.

  2. chuck husak from august, lang & husak, February 19, 2015 at 7:10 p.m.

    Barbara --

    You just named my three favorite spots from Superbowls past, and my favorite spot of SB 2015.

    Yet, the Cadillac spot puzzles me in a different way than you observed….

    I can see how Cadillac is wanting to shake its old image of "land-sled for the geriatric" and evolve into the "dare greatly" arena -- but this
    spot begins by dismissing the "critics."

    Hey, I'm recalling that these days, the critics at the auto pubs are pretty impressed by the latest lineup from Cadillac.

    One strategy would have Cadillac touting these reviews. But what strategy has Cadillac throwing the critics under the bus?

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 19, 2015 at 7:58 p.m.

    So ya' think the NYC is going to play in Peoria ? They forget the side of the blue collars in the trades buy expensive cars, a lot of expensive cars. Cadillac says we forgot about you who do buy cars and do not live in NYC. It is just so egotistical of this agency clan.

  4. Don Perman from self, February 20, 2015 at 12:36 p.m.

    Great! I can't wait to see the ads. Smart and savvy as ever.

  5. Laura Popper from Laurapoppermdpc, February 20, 2015 at 2:06 p.m.

    Now I have a reason to watch the Oscar commercials.

  6. Barbara Lippert from, February 20, 2015 at 3:47 p.m.

    I will say that I appreciate the correct use of an adverb in "Dare Greatly," as opposed to "Think Different." But that was TR's grammatical excellence. And the thing is, how does buying a Cadillac make one "Dare greatly?"
    Thanks for the comments, everybody! I agree that it's not a good formula to put your product above criticism in the first sentence.

  7. Mark Thomas from Self Employed, February 21, 2015 at 10:14 a.m.

    Sounds to me like the agency is trying to shift Cadillac brand image from Detroit Midwest heritage to New York cool. Got to be toughest branding challenge to convert Cadillac’s image from negative to positive. In the 60s and 70s Cadillac’s brand was – Positive. Negative in the 80s and back to maybe neutral in the 90s. I think they actually succeeded in pulling off getting the brand back to positive by 2000. Today neutral again?

    Sounds like the agency is trying to dare greatly by trying to be profound. Shortcuts on brand equity building don’t work. Look how the Ammirati & Puris 1971 creation of “The Ultimate Driving Machine” is still building momentum today. That’s brand equity.

  8. Melanie Howard from self employed, February 21, 2015 at 3:04 p.m.

    I could see Brooklyn hipsters driving Caddys - the old mobster-style versions from the sixties. Not the current models. Of course, if you're not wealthy, you can't have a car in New York City, which means the target audience isn't in New York at all, and they probably aren't watching the Oscars either.

  9. Susan Tellem from Tellem Grody PR, February 22, 2015 at 4:33 p.m.

    I saw the full page ad in the LA Times and thought what goofy agency came up with this ridiculous campaign? No one under 80 years of age will read the whole thing. The hashtag #daregreatly...Didn't anyone learn social media the product.

  10. chuck phillips from chuck inc., February 22, 2015 at 4:49 p.m.

    The "buyers" were the Cadillac execs who canned their agency and hired Publicis to deliver a campaign that would impress their peer group. Their old competitor Lincoln has done a much more admirable job.

  11. William Mount from The Crafton Group, February 23, 2015 at 9:28 a.m.

    Cadillac "dared greatly" two or three agencies ago when they had actor Neal McDonough (the "Republican-type guy" you describe) strut around a pool talking about how we work hard so we can buy better stuff. SInce then, their advertising has fallen squarely into the same executional groove as most other auto advertising, pretty pictures and platitudinous voiceovers. Unfortunately, the new campaign is no different. It's just replaced sweeping horizon pictures with urban pictures. I'm with Chuck Phillips. Lincoln is doing a better job (on their marketing, unfortunately, not so much on their cars). It's easy to mock their advertising because it has a unique style and a point of view. You can't really make fun of something that's devoid of substance.

  12. Barbara Lippert from, February 23, 2015 at 12:16 p.m.

    An additional critique: a political writer I know told me that when Nixon gave his farewell speech and left the White House in shame to board the presidential helicopter, he used this famous Teddy Roosevelt speech as his final words!

  13. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 24, 2015 at 9:32 a.m.

    To have to dare to drive a Cadillac is just evidence of its decline.

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