Ad Report Card: Cadillac's rock of ages.

Commentary about business and finance.
April 15 2002 12:12 PM

Ad Report Card: Cadillac's Rock of Ages

The name Cadillac used to be synonymous with a certain level of luxury and quality—it was the Cadillac of brands, to use a phrase that doesn't really work anymore. More recently the name has had a different connotation: faded glory, age, and out-of-dateness. What to do? The brand's current ad campaign (it kicked off during the Super Bowl) turns to the commercial soundtrack trend, marrying images of a revamped Cadillac models to the sounds of … Led Zeppelin. You can see the spot that seems to be on the air most frequently at the car-maker's site.

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The ad: It's a traffic jam, cars stuck on a city street, horns bleating. A handsome yuppie is stuck in it, until he points his vintage Caddy down a side street and simply leaves it all behind. Suddenly he's on the open highway, cutting through the desert, presumably driving as fast as he wants to, top down. There's a familiar crashing of drums and the music kicks in: Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." "Been a long time …" etc., goes the Robert Plant warble, over the Jimmy Page riff, that you've heard a million times. Then, in the rearview mirror: another car. It's the new Cadillac CTS. The music drops out and an announcer says, "A legend … reborn." The music cranks up again and the new CTS blows past the Zep-loving yuppie. "Cadillac CTS," the announcer says, sounding vaguely smug. "Break through."

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Rock solid or retread? We're all familiar with the onslaught of cool, edgy music in advertising. This campaign is not part of that onslaught. Why? Because Led Zeppelin's music is not edgy or cool. It's "classic," as in classic rock. And "classic rock," of course, is a radio-category euphemism designed to put the best possible spin on a format that caters to the nostalgia of its presumed listeners. For obvious reasons, the label "classic rock" sounds better than "oldies."

This is a problem, because presumably what Cadillac wants to do is shed its yesterday's-news image and re-emerge as a younger, fresher, more current version of itself. But are those the qualities that strains of "classic" Zep spark in your mind? I suppose the answer depends on who the listener is, and perhaps there's a constituency that sees this ad and thinks: "You know, I used to think Cadillacs were out-of-date, but now I can see that they're as today as Led Zeppelin." But I suspect there's another constituency that sees Plant and Page as prime examples of poorly aging rock peacocks, coasting on the fumes of achievements from a quarter-century ago: Not only are they faintly embarrassing dinosaurs, but they have no sense of humor about it. (The specter of aging poorly, incidentally, isn't helped when you consider how much better the old Caddy in this ad looks than the new one.) In any case, it's been a long time, to borrow a phrase, since Robert Plant was anyone's stand-in for the idea of youthfulness. 

Now, just so nobody takes this the wrong way, I want to be clear that I don't have a problem with Led Zeppelin. If I'm flipping around the car-radio dial and a Zeppelin song comes up on some oldies (um, classic rock) station, there's a reasonable chance I'll pause and hear it out. If I'm in the mood for that sort of thing, I'd probably rather hear Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," or Foghat's "Slow Ride," but "Kashmir" can be just fine, too. There's something pleasantly familiar about a Led Zeppelin song that I know by heart without ever having bought one of the band's records. It's safe, it's predictable, it's the same old thing it's always been, for as long as I can remember. Actually, I guess you could say Led Zeppelin is the Cadillac of classic rock bands.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

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