During last year's Oscars, Cadillac ran an ad that was sweeping in scope, with scenes of street protesters, cops, soldiers, flood victims and even Muhammad Ali as it tried to promote unity amid the divisive political environment. This year's stars? The Jetsons and Knight Rider.
The shift from a high-minded to lighthearted tone comes as the General Motors luxury brand uses Hollywood's biggest night to put more focus on its actual vehicles—and less on making grand statements about the human condition.
"I kind of feel the public is tired of seeing these heavy, lofty ads. It just seems a little bit more honest right now in my opinion to focus on our products," says Cadillac marketing director Renée Rauchut.
Cadillac, which holds exclusive national automotive advertising rights for Sunday's Academy Awards broadcast on ABC, will run three spots by Publicis Groupe's Rokkan. The ads stick with the brand's "Dare Greatly" tagline. But they veer away from the approach taken by former Chief Marketing Officer Uwe Ellinghaus, who departed on Dec. 31 and has not yet been replaced. He was fond of using the Oscars to connect the brand with big ideas and emotions by deploying some ads in which the brand's vehicles were hardly shown or mentioned.
This year Cadillac will plug a variety of vehicles, services and technology, including the XT4, the brand's first-ever compact SUV that will officially be unveiled later this month at a press event in New York City. One 30-second ad, called "Future Cars," promotes Super Cruise, Cadillac's hands-free driving technology, by channeling classic Hollywood depictions of the future of transportation, including scenes from "Knight Rider," "The Jetsons," "Back to the Future," "Minority Report," "Speed Racer," and "
Rauchut says this year's goal is to "have more fun and stay a bit more optimistic and upbeat." It is not to make a sweeping statement on society, or push some big cause.
Such tactics have become trendy as brands try to plug into cultural conversations. But marketers also risk looking exploitive or disingenuous, fueling a backlash. For instance, Ram caught heavy social media flack for its Super Bowl ad that used a Martin Luther King Jr. speech as a backdrop.
Other Super Bowl spots plugged corporate philanthropy, such as two Anheuser-Busch InBev ads touting water programs and a Hyundai commercial touting an organization funded by the automaker that fights childhood cancer.
"I look at myself as a consumer as well as a marketer and I don't think all of those ads necessarily resonate with me," Rauchut says, speaking broadly about the trend. "Looking at our marketing budget, it's finite. We don't have billions of dollars to just roll the dice and see how it comes out in the other side."
Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova School of Business, says Cadillac is making the right move. He pointed to the pervasiveness of ads pushing causes. "I still think that can be a really good approach. But the creative needs to be excellent now to stand out from other advertisers that are doing that," he says. "It better be a really good ad."
Rauchut did not rule out returning to more high-minded advertising. But "it just didn't seem to make sense against what we have to communicate this year."
Instead, the brand will use the Oscars to make a few subtle, but noncontroversial, nods to the entertainment industry as it plugs the XT4. For instance, one 30-second spot carries a movie theme, declaring "let someone else make a sequel," as it puts a spotlight on the new model.
A 60-second spot called "Future Is Here" mixes vehicle shots with glimpses of Book by Cadillac, the brand's subscription service that allows members to regularly swap out different models for monthly fees that include vehicles as well as registration, taxes, insurance and maintenance. The spot stars a woman driver cruising confidently in New York City.
Amid the #MeToo movement, ad casting choices are facing more analysis and scrutiny. But Cadillac's choice of a female star was more pragmatic than anything else, Rauchut says. "When we cast it's usually gender agnostic and we look for the best actors and actresses and that's who we landed on this year," she says. "And we know we have a female audience, a lot of women drive Escalades...it just seems to work."
Other brands will likely take advantage of the Oscars to more overtly plug women's empowerment. In an interview last month with Ad Age, Rita Ferro, president of sales at Disney-ABC TV Group, said some advertisers specifically bought the Oscars, which airs just four days before International Women's Day, to celebrate women. "Advertisers have realized this is the right type of message and right movement to get behind," she said.
For instance, Walmart created three short films by teaming up with three female entertainment power players: writer/producer/director Nancy Meyers ("It's Complicated" and "The Holiday"); actress Melissa McCarthy; and "Mudbound" director Dee Rees.