The commercial above played at the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and again at the Academy Awards. It’s a long take on the American Dream. At first I was captivated. Pitchman Neal McDonough asks us (while wearing shorts and a golf shirt), “What do we work hard for, is it for stuff?” As he walks past his pool and through his house he highlights our so-called American Values – hard work; achievement; self-reliance. Why are we like that? McDonough reminds us, “Because we’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers that’s why.” I loved the bit about going to the moon, “We left a car up there with the keys in it, do you know why? Because we are the only ones going back, that’s why.” The first time I saw this advertisement, I had no idea where it was going or what it was going to pitch to me. I thought it could be a commercial for the NASA, the armed services, to support the U.S. Olympic Team or some other patriotic venture. I was feeling pretty good.
After the moon rover bit McDonough walks off screen and returns in a flashy suit, and makes his real pitch. “We do work hard in order to acquire stuff,” is what the ad seems to say as McDonough drives off in a new car. I don’t want to beat up the carmaker (after all, the goal of the advertisement is to sell us a car) but it is also selling a set of values that we culturally embrace that are problematic to our Christian faith. In my view, it completely undermined the first part of his monologue which I found compelling.
Our lives are not about stuff or acquiring it. It’s hard to underscore that truth in our consumer-driven, materialistic culture. There are many outcries against this advertisement and there are many who defend it.* To me – it actually names our sinful self-absorbed condition and the society we live in that embraces our egos incredibly well. We chase pipe-dreams. We think if we work hard enough at the expense of our loved ones there will be an adequate pay off. We think the latest smartphone, gadget, toy or status symbol will make us feel good about ourselves and inspire others to try as hard as we do. But it’s fleeting. The promises of our culture evaporate. New cars rust. Flashy suits get holes in them. New toys break. The latest smartphone draws our interest only long enough until the next great thing comes along. We’re all guilty of seeking to acquire them.
As Lent begins I implore you to resist. I have nothing against Cadillacs. One of my most prominent memories of time spent with my grandfather on my mother’s side was sitting up in the front seat of his Cadillac and going for a drive. I don;t mean to imply that any of things we use are “inherently bad” either. But a good question to ask of our stuff is: Whom possesses whom? Be mindful of how the message of “more, more, more” attacks again and again and again in so many subtle ways we don’t even notice it most of the time until it controls us. Take notice. Turn away. Seek the things of real value: time invested in the ones you love, adding something to the lives of others rather than always consuming, and looking beyond yourself and your own achievements to the One who has given everything.
The primary symbol of Christian faith is not the next new thing. It is a cross. Across these days of Lent hold that cross close. The Christ upon it gives away everything – for you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:19-21)
* Here is an article highlights a variety of takes on the Cadillac advertisement: Michael McCarthy, “Cadillac Clears Up ‘Misconceptions’ About Contentious ‘Poolside’ Ad,” Advertising Age. March 1, 2014. Online Available: http://adage.com/article/news/cadillac-clears-misconceptions-poolside-ad/291925/.
Here is a more scathing review: Carolyn Gregorie, “Cadillac Made a Car Commercial about the American Dream, and it’s a Nightmare” Huffington Post. February, 26, 2014. Online Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/26/this-commercial-sums-up-e_n_4859040.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000063.