It is with a heavy heart that I dissent from fellow Pittsburgher Abby Schachter’s defense of the Neal McDonough “hard work” Cadillac advertisement. The ad is a vicious distillation of the worst of American materialism.
The man opens the spot with a series of rhetorical questions: “Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff?” The viewer reasonably expects these questions to be answered, and for the materialist view to be repudiated. Instead we get a litany of non sequiturs, beginning with sneering at Europeans relaxing in cafés and culminating with crowing about the Moon landing. It’s apparently still 1972 at Cadillac HQ.
By this point, the only answer to the original question is not an answer at all: It’s just who we are as Americans. But why is it who we are? That’s the question. And the answer is: stuff.
“As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.”
That’s it. On the one hand, the man could take the month of August off, enjoy two more weeks of life’s little pleasures (maybe even at a café), spend more time with his family, and have marginally less awesome stuff. On the other, he could take only two weeks off, spend more time in the office, enjoy less time with his family, and have marginally more awesome stuff. He chooses the latter. Because America.
This is not a terribly becoming portrait of our fair land. Just look at the role the kids play in the ad. They are perfect little accessories to the man’s lifestyle, there to affirm him explicitly (one gives him a nonchalant high five as he passes) and implicitly (by enjoying the stuff he’s worked for). The family is just one status symbol among many: the pool, the McMansion, the electric luxury sedan.
The man is the Sun and his hard work is the gravity that keeps all his stuff—his family included—in his orbit.
Compare this individualistic, materialistic view of work with that portrayed in a recent Walmart spot, which tells the story of a young man named Patrick who has an unspecified learning disability. Patrick articulates two clear reasons for his work: first, it’s an assertion of his equal dignity (“Work makes me feel that I’m reaching my goals.”) and second, it’s a way of participating in the life of his community (“I’m part of a team and I get to give back to my family.”).
Whereas for the Cadillac man work is about drawing people and things into himself, for Patrick work is about going outside of himself. Whereas the Cadillac man has constructed an identity around his work ethic, for Patrick work is just one expression of his identity as an independent person. Whereas for the Cadillac man work is a status symbol, for Patrick, to steal the tagline of the campaign, “work is a beautiful thing.”
Not all celebrations of hard work are made equal, and we don’t denigrate the concept by being discerning in our analysis. The Cadillac ad is crass. It implicitly denigrates those who, by no fault of their own, do not achieve the man’s level of success. And it defines that success in purely materialist terms.
The Walmart ad is humane. It lifts up all work and all workers as valuable, regardless of class or tax bracket. And it defines success comprehensively, in keeping with our comprehensive dignity.
Let us indeed celebrate work, but let us do so for the right reasons.