If you missed it, the commercial is a confident celebration of America’s unique work ethic and the right to possess stuff. We have it because we earn it, we deserve it. While other countries sit in cafes and take month-long vacations, America is hard working, America is special. There is nothing subtle about it.
People seem to be caught up in whether the film is an honest and bold statement about American exceptionalism that should be embraced or a tacky lie that should be exposed and shunned.
But whether any of this is true or not is hardly the point. It doesn’t need to be true, not in any detail. It just needs to speak a truth to people who want to hear it. It is creating, sustaining, and — they hope — capitalizing on the myth all at once. It has to resonate, and in that measure — at least in part — the commercial is a success.
However, overall I find the car commercial uninteresting beyond the debate it has aroused. What I find more interesting is how plainly this commercial exposes how easily our identities can be touched and stirred, especially our political identities. I’m not surprised by the tenor of the debate around this commercial as much as I am surprised that it takes a car commercial to raise that debate when this very same narrative of exceptionalism is with us almost every waking moment of our lives in the endless political battles waged today.
Whether you are selling a political candidate or selling cars, you want to be true to the values of your audience. And it seems clear to me that many Americans not only want to believe the ethical ideal portrayed in the commercial, they do in fact believe it.
What people feel viscerally in this commercial is around them 24/7 in the packaging of American politics. It explains why the underpaid laborer believes Mitt Romney represented his best interests. Or perhaps why the son of a Wall Street financier leans toward Bernie Sanders.
Facts matter less and less as we live more and more by gut alone. It’s been said before and it is true, it is a tribal identity that organizes us. A need to belong. And increasingly the fragmented, post-modern subject is cohering around simple, well-regimented ideological identities. In this world fact — whatever that might be — is replaced by upper-case Truth regardless of how factually incorrect or misleading that Truth might be. Facts do not matter. The mythical Truth does.
So to debate whether that Cadillac ad accurately represents American values isn’t as interesting to me as the fact that some people identify with it and others don’t. Between the two poles there is a common history and a common identity, but today those common experiences do not meet.
We are literally at a point where we no longer control our story. Our story controls us. And today those are very much divided stories, but not stories without control. Facts be damned. It is the Truth we’re after. And if you know the Truth, you already already know who is likely to buy a Cadillac or buy a Volvo or whose likely to vote Republican or vote Democrat. The Truth tells us so. That’s where the big debate lies waiting.