The Scoundrel’s Dilemma

When and How to Evoke Patriotism in Advertising

The great English writer Samuel Johnson once declared that, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Johnson’s beef wasn’t with patriotism per se, rather the issue of it being coopted for the purposes self-interest. In the preceding several hundred years since, proof of Johnson’s quote is still readily seen in many pockets of society. Politicians often appropriate the love of country for a broad range of purposes; from securing smooth passage of legislation, to xenophobic fear mongering. To wit, patriotism often rears its head when any standalone merit is hard to find.

The American car industry has a complicated history with patriotism. Since Detroit industry workers smashing Toyotas in the 70s, the call to buy American over imported cars has been strong.

But this is 2014. The problem with American manufacturers evoking the nebulous notion of patriotism is that not only are a slew of affordable imported alternatives available, consumers have never been better informed. Aside from buying a house, a new car is likely the biggest purchase a consumer will ever make. Can (or should) a car buyer suspend rationality for the love of country? The idea of this is worth examining in light of a couple a couple of TV spots from American carmakers, GlobalHue’s Super Bowl spot for Chrysler, and Rogue’s recent spot for Cadillac.

Chrysler’s spot features America’s most revered living icon, Bob Dylan, expounding on the attributes of other nations against the backdrop of gorgeously shot Americana. The spot finishes with a call to action, “Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland build your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. But WE will build your car.” Dylan assures us that other countries are adept at plenty of other worthwhile endeavors, but cars are central to the American story. To buy a car from another country is treasonous.

The Cadillac spot is more polarizing. A love letter to unfettered self-reliance, the spot seems to know which way its bread is buttered. Unlike the Chrysler spot, it doesn’t acknowledge but rather demonizes the attitudes of other nations, even taking the well-worn path of French bashing, finishing with the phrase, “N’est-ce pas?” While the YouTube commenters formed two camps, one of the, “How insensitive, egocentric, and repulsive.” The other, “Hey butthurt foreigners in the comments: instead of crying, take notes. This is why our country is the greatest in the world and yours isn’t,” the spot reinforces what American buyers of this car will love the most about themselves.

Both spots evoke patriotism, but the Cadillac spot stays strictly in the visceral, emotional space, whereas Dylan’s Chrysler spot ends with a plea of rationality — it’s ok to buy foreign goods, just not cars.

The problem with this message is that is is patently untrue. By many independent (indeed, American) perspectives, Chryslers are a pretty middling choice. The jury is back in — Edmunds, Cars.com, Consumer Reports, and plenty of others suggest that all things considered, Chryslers aren’t a great buy. Chrysler is essentially asking us to sacrifice our decision-making rigor on the altar of patriotism. That’s a pretty big ask boys.

But by embracing only the emotional hot buttons and appealing to what makes them unique, Cadillac’s spot lovingly depicts those with the wallet and the will to buy the ELR. While controversial, this spot is much more relevant and appealing to the sensibilities of the self-made.

Jimmy Darmody from Boardwalk Empire cautions, “You can’t be half a gangster.” American carmakers would do well to take note. Evoking irrational yet powerful emotions can’t be tempered by a call to rationality. IF a brand feels compelled to evoke love of country (and it’s a big IF), then it needs to go hard or go home.

Larrikin Sandgroper, @Fremantle_FC tragic, Global Strategy Consultant, failed clarinetist, banjo novice, doting dad.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store