Mar 20, 2014; Raleigh, NC, USA; A view of the NCAA logo on the basket during practice before the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

March Madness, Cadillac, and American Exceptionalism


If I have learned one thing from witnessing the public’s response to Bob Costas pontificating on political issues during halftime of Sunday Night Football games on NBC, it is that most fans do not consume sports for political punditry.  And while I proverbially am buying what Costas is often selling, there is clearly something to be said for sports functioning as a welcomed form of escapism—an infrequent reprieve from the substantive issues of our time.  After four full days of March Madness binge watching, however, one ever-present commercial has prevented me from properly escaping.

If you have turned on a television since early February, you have almost assuredly watched the 2014 Cadillac ELR commercial featuring actor Neal McDonough playing the role of hyper-capitalist General Motors pitchman.  In the advertisement, a visibly affluent McDonough shows off his pool and mansion, changes from golf attire into a fitted suit, and prepares to presumably speed away in his peppy but eco-friendly hybrid car.  Throughout this condensed de facto MTV Cribs episode, McDonough providers prospective Cadillac consumers with the following harangue:

Why do we work so hard?  For what?  For this?  For stuff?  Other countries—they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off, off!  Why aren’t you like that?  Why aren’t we like that?  Because we’re crazy, driven, hardworking believers, that’s why!

Those other countries think we’re nuts.  Whatever.  Were the Wright brothers insane?  Bill Gates?  Les Paul?  Ali?  Were we nuts when we pointed to the Moon?  That’s right, we went up there; you know what we got?  Bored!  So we left—got a car up there and left the keys in it.  Do you know why?  Because we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why!  But I digress.

It’s pretty simple: you work hard, you create your own luck, and you’ve got to believe anything is possible.  As for all the stuff?  That’s the upside for only taking two weeks off in August.

Quite predictably, and like most things in life, this advertisement transcended into a staunch partisan debate.  Liberals argued that McDonough’s rant was xenophobic, out of touch, and an overwhelming exaggeration of US capitalism.  Conservatives countered that the Cadillac commercial was patriotic and showcased archetypal American core values.  General Motors, meanwhile, likely lost a lot of potential Cadillac buyers while almost assuredly gaining more immediate sales of its automobiles.

I am not here to mimic Bob Costas and attempt to convince you which interpretation of the aforementioned advertisement is proper.  After all, what is “proper” is a subjective concept—as is what is “right” for America.  Value judgments aside, I am more interested in the veracity of the commercial.  When Neil McDonough belittles citizens of other countries for strolling home from work, stopping at cafes, and giddily taking vacations, he proceeds to ask why you are not like that.  And why Americans in general are not like that.  If March Madness is any indicator, I’m sorry Neil, but we are like that.

If we are truly a nation of people desirous of only taking two weeks of work off per year, then why are we so content with curbing productivity during the NCAA Tournament?  According to a report put out by Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, Inc., a prominent outplacement firm, “with an estimated 50 million Americans participating in March Madness office pools, companies stand to lose at least $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament.”  Despite Jena McGregor of the Washington Post providing a convincing rebuttal of that report, the fact remains that if you were a college graduate stuck at work during the second round of March Madness, you were almost guaranteed to be streaming games—or at the very least following the action on a game tracker.  And that only accounts for the men and women who decided to go into work on Thursday and Friday.  What about the folks who mysteriously fell ill Wednesday night?  Or the seemingly tens of thousands of people who strategically banked sick days to turn the NCAA Tournament into a Las Vegas getaway?  For being “crazy, driven, hardworking believers,” Americans seem just a bit too enthralled in college basketball, don’t you think?

Cadillac might be surprised to hear this, but it is not just the working members of Generations X and Y who appear to value alumni pride and college sports more than maximizing efficiency in the workplace.  Consider the “plight” of the American high school student.  Are these kids frantically taking notes and clinging to their professors’ words?  No!  Instead, these students are sneakily watching college basketball games in class on their smart phones.   And as compiled by Sean Newell of Deadspinmany students did not even have to resort to such clever means of deception—as many teachers were actually complicit in allowing students to watch March Madness in class on school-owned monitors.

Unless our behavior surrounding March Madness is the exception to the rule, GM’s portrayal of the American work philosophy is about as realistic as the owner of the mansion in the Cadillac commercial driving an ELR in the first place.

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Tags: March Madness NCAA Basketball

  • Patrick Allen

    Also, is it me, or is the commercial not so subtly ripping off this:

    • Phil Daniels

      Wow. That is really interesting. You might be right. The funny thing is if Leary released this video today, it would clearly be viewed to an extent as a Cadillac parody.