Commentary

The Sniping! The Criticism! Welcome To... The Oscars

A funny thing happened en route to the Oscars’ move toward cultural irrelevance. OK, let’s not go crazy.


This Sunday evening, we will still have to endure the stilted banter and embarrassing production numbers endemic to the broadcast, regardless of the host, as well as the head-scratching pacing. So glacial that the show won’t deliver its major winners until after 11 p.m. on the East Coast.

But there is a fundamental difference this year. The Academy actually deserves an Oscar for its pivot on diversity.

For the past two years, the hashtag #Oscarssowhite decried the problem. In those two years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took serious action, diversifying its leadership base and opening up its voting membership, which previously resembled the elder “wax works” that Norma Desmond assembled for her parties in “Sunset Boulevard.”

As a result of a changing of the guard, plus social media crusading and the undeniable bounty of black-produced, directed, written and acted films this year, the new Oscar slate includes nominations for six black actors and actresses—a record.

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Three films with predominantly black casts — “Fences,” “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” — are contenders for Best Picture — also a record. Barry Jenkins was nominated for Best Director for “Moonlight.”  And four documentaries with black directors and subjects are up for awards.

This influx, and recognition, of black talent to a previously closed white system is another cultural indicator at odds with the increasingly conservative values of the Trump administration. No doubt there will be speeches about subjects closer to home to the celeb award-winners, like the travel ban, cuts to the arts, and a growing political environment that feels newly threatening to the LGBT and immigrant communities.

Still, much as we have to brace for actors’ speeches, and the eye-rolling possibilities that some of these very privileged folk are being a bit hypocritical, these are dangerous waters for advertisers to wade in.

At this point, politics feels more emotionally charged and polarized than at any time in the last 50 years.

As was shown at the Super Bowl, there can be push-back and much ugliness online in response to kindly stories about the contributions of immigrants to business and culture, as well as the need to show girls that they deserve equal pay.

And yet, a whole new crop of advertisers will use the Oscars as a platform for their own new social statements, hoping politically connected themes will resonate with viewers.

One that stunned me was the new Cadillac spot, which begins with a monumental aim: to heal the divisions in the country.

That’s a mighty elevated issue to take on for a luxury car company, with no direct connection to the brand. Meanwhile, it’s pretty obvious why TheNew York Times, which rarely uses TV advertising, would pony up and run its new spot “Truth” at this time.

It is a response to a crisis in journalism, and the direct and regular criticism from President Trump who, in his spoken words and tweets, often calls out the paper as a disseminator of “fake news.” (At press time, the Times was one of several media outlets the White House had banned from an afternoon press conference).

It’s also understandable that Hyatt Hotels would break its first ad on the Oscars with “For a World of Understanding,” showing a message of inclusion and diversity. The set-up on the train, with a blonde woman confronting a woman in a hijab, feels a little obvious. But still, Hyatt is a global brand, with a demographic that includes all skin colors, religions and ethnicities.

So, while I give the Cadillac team kudos for going for such an ambitious, sweeping, contemporary message, (that “we are one”)  it’s an impossible task for this advertiser to carry off.  

One of the problems is that it’s built around the Cadillac tag line “Dare Greatly,” which I dare say is one of the greatest misses in history. What does it even mean? “Great Daring” would actually be more specific and less clunky.

The spot starts very dramatically, showing old news footage of a civil rights demonstration from the 1960s, as the announcer says,  “We are a nation divided.” That certainly is heart-stopping and attention-getting, a sock in the gut.

I like the music, and the ad is beautifully produced. I love the middle part, created around actual archival Cadillac photos. “We’ve had the privilege to carry a century of humanity—lovers [Marilyn Monroe] fighters, [Muhammad Ali] leaders [Eisenhower].”

I wish the entire commercial consisted of such photos. That would have set up an engagingly nostalgic feeling about the importance of the brand in the culture that could have carried forward. (Historically, the president’s car has been a Cadillac, and that also goes for Trump, who tools around in the vehicle known as “The Beast.” )

By the end of the spot, when the voiceover guy says: “But maybe what we carry isn’t just people. It’s an idea. We can be one. And all it takes is a willingness to dare,” I actually felt sorry for the copywriter, considering the idiomatic hoops that person had to jump through to get the whole thing to come back to, and hinge on, the word “dare.”

It’s a lovely sentiment, to be sure. But are they really suggesting that all it takes to unify the country is the purchase of a Cadillac?
Attempting to carry the nation on its back is a case of overreach — especially for a major purchase that gains from bailouts and tariffs, two of the issues charging us up.

Hard to believe, but this year, for great daring in creating change, the award goes to the Academy itself.

11 comments about "The Sniping! The Criticism! Welcome To... The Oscars".
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  1. Nancy Levine from Self, February 24, 2017 at 5:03 p.m.

    Funny juxtapose, old-world luxury brand Cadillac and the gritty reality of Moonlight (my odds-on favorite for best pic). Great article -- makes me excited to see the ads in between yawning at the speeches (though hoping for some Hollywood resistors to step up!). Very happy to hear that NYT will get some air. How timely!

  2. Jane Farrell from Freelance, February 24, 2017 at 6:08 p.m.

    I agree with you that Cadillac does seem to over-reach, especially since it's considered a luxury brand by so many people. (Hardly the kind of car to unite everyone. Now, a Kia...) Cheers to the Oscars for championing diversity and rewarding excellence. I have no doubt that there will be some critical speeches, which will provoke an aggrieved tweet at 3 a.m. Monday.

  3. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 24, 2017 at 8:06 p.m.

    Interesting article in The New Yorker about the Oscar selection of people to vote. One line from one of the ousted was "so they are substituting ageism for racism." Made me think back to someone's line that 'when you think that Mary Livingston (Jack Bennys wife on radio and TV and real life) is a member of the academy and her vote is equal to mine, Oscar doesn't mean much." I thought then that there was a meanness in the line; now I realize it is just condescending (for all I know Mary was as discerning a critic as, oh, James Agee). Cadillac was a weird car: it made hearses limos and I once saw a purple stretch caddy limo coming up 8th avenue. It had yellow writing engraved into its side: "when you see me coming, say Hey, Boddily." I said it and I waved. I think Bo waved back or it coulda been a bodyguard. 

  4. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 24, 2017 at 8:08 p.m.

    typos: Bo Diddily.....apologies Bo.

  5. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, February 26, 2017 at 7:04 p.m.

    You do a disservice to conservatives by aligning the trump admin with conservative values. While I'm not a conservative, I know many, and those I know are not racist. Although recognition of some systemic racism is hard to illuminate.

    It's interesting how many of these social justice-themed ads are running on the Oscars. Preaching to the choir? Those who espouse values that are foreign to American principles are likely not going to watch. I saw a tweet today that said, if the NY Times wants to reach people who don't already read it, they should have run their ad during the Daytona 500. Now that would have gotten a reaction.

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, February 27, 2017 at 10:10 a.m.

    What a Hollywood ending! Sad that the mix-up somewhat diminished the historic win for "Moonlight." 

  7. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, February 27, 2017 at 5:34 p.m.


    This may help explain at least some of the thinking behind the Cadillac ads, including the "dare greatly' tag-line.  Over the past few years, the Cadillac division of General Motors has made a strong and very successful move into auto racing, which definitely falls into the "great dare" category, especially for a carmaker who until now aimed squarely (bad pun) at the elderly demographic. 

    While this new direction is never mentioned specifically in their latest TV ads, those who follow racing would be aware of the tie-in between progressive thinking and international motorsport (which excludes NASCAR, ... it's complicated.)

  8. John Grono from GAP Research replied, February 27, 2017 at 9:01 p.m.

    Diddley.   Well he was when he toured Australia a few times in the '70s.

  9. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, February 27, 2017 at 9:02 p.m.


    Barbara Lippert's excellent column reminded me of film critic Peter K. Rosenthal's review of Best Picture nominee La La Land, which reveals the brilliant last-minute decision made by the film's producers that some would argue vastly improved the production:

    http://www.theonion.com/video/onion-reviews-la-la-land-55368?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=feeds

  10. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network replied, February 27, 2017 at 11:29 p.m.


    Barbara: Or it could be that Moonlight's win will be enhanced due to the publicity surrounding the mix-up.

    On a related note, I read something in another column or a comment that suggested things could have been a lot worse if the mix-up had been reversed, with Moonlight being the one given the Oscar by mistake and having to give it to the La La Land crew.  

    And, of course, Trump claims it was all caused by too much attention being paid to slamming him, and too little paid to getting the details right during the Oscars.  

    The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that we were all put on Earth to amuse the gods, who took turns inventing bizarre situations for us to handle.  Considering recent events, I'm beginning to believe it.  

  11. Jim English from The Met Museum, February 28, 2017 at 11:08 p.m.

    Liked the Cadillac ad. Thinking of 1999 campaign when Cadillac stated, "It unifies man and woman.  Joins stars and stripes."  

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