Advertising, American Style

During the Winter Olympics, two advertisements that were in very heavy rotation presented contrasting and stark visions of America. Ironically, both ads were from General Motors but the underlying philosophy behind the ads appealed to two strikingly different demographics, even though both were aimed at luxury car owners.

The first of the ads, called “Poolside”, features the actor Neal McDonough, known for his excellent work in Band of Brothers and Justified. In the ad, McDonough rattles off a creed of American exceptionalism. We’re not like the rest of the world, content to put in a day at work and stop off at the café. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers,” he says. Americans work hard and play hard. We’re “driven” to push boundaries, to create, to explore, to never be satisfied. The Wright brothers, Bill Gates, Muhammad Ali, and Les Paul are all cited as examples of the American spirit. We are such an exceptional nation that we pushed ourselves to go to the Moon and then became bored because outer space was no longer a challenge. “It’s simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

The ad has been misunderstood. Critics, invariably from the Left, claim that it’s an ode to conspicuous consumption. McDonough is playing a rich guy with a great house, large pool, beautiful wife and kids, and a Cadillac ELR in the driveway. He extols Americans to take shorter vacations and work even harder. The critics miss the point. McDonough says early in the ad that Americans don’t work this way for “stuff”. We work this way because it’s who we are. The “stuff” comes as a result, not because it’s a goal.

The commercial promotes hard work, belief in yourself, and the old-fashioned notion that people make their own luck and that they succeed or fail based on a combination of attitude and effort. The ad could have been scripted by Horatio Alger.

Compare this to another GM ad that was running at the same time, this one for the Chevy Tahoe.

In the Tahoe ad, a young couple arrives home from a night out and asks the babysitter how things went. “They went right to bed,” the young girl replies. The mother then drives the girl home in her Chevy Tahoe. As they drive, the girl takes notice of the opulence of the vehicle. She runs her fingers along the stitching on the leather interior, notes the satellite radio, the various high-tech screens and push-button controls. When they arrive at the babysitter’s house, the woman says “Forty, right?” as she breaks out her wallet. The babysitter pauses, looks over the interior of the car again, and smugly says, “Ummm…sixty.”

Here is Entitlement Nation in the guise of a girl barely in her teens. She’s just come from a job that was, by her own admission, easy. There is an agreed upon price for the job but the girl decides she wants more based on how much the young couple have. In the America of the Neal McDonough ad, the young mother would have replied, “Here’s the forty dollars we agreed on. I don’t appreciate your pathetic attempt at grabbing more of the money that I’ve earned and you didn’t. I am going to make sure that all of your clients understand that you’re a self-entitled little brat who can’t be trusted to honor an agreement. Your compensation is based on the attitude and effort you bring to the table, not on the type of car we can afford. Get out of my car. Good luck ever finding another babysitting job in this neighborhood.”

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. But just a bit. The fact is that these two advertisements do convey radically different, and competing, philosophies of life in America. In one, you succeed based on your spirit and effort. In the other, you demand success from the spirit and effort of someone else. It’s the difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement; it’s the difference between the Conservative view of America and the Progressive view. It is the difference between a free nation and one where we shackle ourselves to government largesse. These ads represent visions of our future. The choice is up to us.

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