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Cadillac: Pimped Out But Keeping Quiet About It

Dan Neil has a penetrating view of the divergent image and customer base for the venerable symbol of automotive class. The company is happy to make the sales but takes no responsibility for the “playa” image:

    As Cadillac heads down the road, what kind of music is on the stereo?

    The GM luxury division’s “Break Through” television ad campaign defibrillates viewers’ hearts with Led Zeppelin’s 1971 classic “Rock and Roll.” Let us not kid ourselves. This ad campaign is aimed primarily at white boomers, affluent suburbanites as young as 44 and as old as, say, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, rock gods who are spending entirely too much time in the bathroom.

    Yet Cadillac’s biggest fans are at the other end of pop culture’s radio dial. According to a survey by San Francisco-based marketing analyst Lucian James, Cadillac became the most name-dropped brand in songs on Billboard’s Top 20 chart in January 2004, overtaking Mercedes-Benz, which has long been hip-hop’s shibboleth of bling-bling materialism. (Other names to watch on James’ “American Brandstand” list include Lexus, Hennessey, Cristal and Gucci.)

    ….Today the brand is on the bleeding edge of what’s cool, a fixture in urban music and cherished ride of some of Dub Nation’s biggest superstars. How did all this happen?

    “It’s been a totally great surprise,” Cadillac General Manager Mark LaNeve told Automotive News last week. “In terms of generating anything that is targeted to that group, no, we can’t take credit for it. We’re too busy to know what’s cool.”

    Word up. Cadillac now finds itself curiously suspended between two demographics with very different sensibilities, which – let’s keep it real, yo – don’t have much to do with each other. For all the talk about hip-hop going mainstream, and crossover hits such as OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” (“Don’t want to meet your daddy/Just want you in my Caddy”) you are not going to find white middle-aged soccer moms swapping out their Sting CDs so they can rattle windows with Youngbloodz’s “Cadillac Pimpin.” And, outside of commercials, you almost never hear Led Zep in South Central.

    Marketing maven James likes to talk about how brand names operate in hip-hop as metaphor, as compressed bits of meaning; in a word, poetry.

    ….There are Cadillacs parked in every corner of the music store. In the country section, the selection runs from Bob Wills’ “Cadillac in Model ‘A’ ” to Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars Cadillacs Etc.” In rock, from Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch.” Novelty songs? We got ’em. Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” is about an assembly line worker who smuggles a new Cadillac out of the factory in his lunchbox.

    ….The rise of Cadillac in hip-hop culture begins with the American bluesmen of the mid-20th century at a time when the name Cadillac was the definition of excellence and the cars were automotive totems of the ruling class. Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Lightnin’ Hopkins were itinerant artists, working a vast territory from Chicago to Texas to the Mississippi Valley, and so a fine car was a very practical aspiration.

    ….Flash-forward to 1968 and the birth of funk, with James Brown’s black identity anthem “Say it Loud.” The blues’ covert sexuality gave way to funk’s explicitness, as in Brown’s “Sex Machine.” Afros, dashikis, platform shoes and brilliantly colored suits became standard stage wear for bands like Sly & the Family Stone.

    The exuberances of funk fashion morphed into the dandified “pimp” style favored by the crushed-velvet, gold-toothed sex entrepreneurs we would now call “players.”

    And Cadillac was along for the ride.

    ….by the early 1970s, the Cadillac brand found itself riding around with a trunk full of stereotypes – pimpmobile, welfare Cadillac. For the next three decades, the marketing department at Cadillac avoided any association with the African American demographic. When Cadillac general manager LaNeve says the division didn’t “target” hip-hop culture, he is artfully shading the story.

    But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: Pimpin’ went mainstream.

    ….You might start the clock running in 1988, with N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton,” the epitome of gangsta rap and a kind of psychic template for hip-hop to come. Gangsta rap is an amplification of funk’s sensibility, except that instead of political empowerment for many, its energy is derived from the self-glorification of the narrator, the ruthless criminal-as-hero, the gangsta, the “playa” in ostentatious jewelry, cars and clothes.

    Gangsta was also “street”: The most credible artists rapped about their own experiences. One of rap’s most influential figures – and the one, by my reckoning, most responsible for popularizing “pimp” – is Ice-T.

    ….He is also the new Godfather of Pimp. Ice-T added the celebrity voltage to Brent Owens’ debauched pimpumentary “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down” (1999) set against the backdrop of the annual Players Ball.

    ….According to the Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Assn., the trade group for automotive aftermarket suppliers, the market for dubs – custom wheels – represents over $3 billion annually.

    For Cadillac, the tipping point came with the 1999 introduction of the Cadillac Escalade, a full-size SUV (based on the Chevy Tahoe) loaded with luxury and trimmed out with dramatic, knife-edge styling. The Escalade became a hit with many African American athletes, in part because pro basketball players often had a hard time folding themselves into a Bentley Azure.

    ….Yet all that glitters is not bling. Pimpin’ is, after all, about sexual exploitation of women. And while it’s easy to laugh while watching MTV’s “Pimp My Ride,” there is plenty in hip-hop that Cadillac would do well to keep at arm’s length.

    ….In a country where Janet Jackson’s brief glandular grandstanding at the Super Bowl shook Congress to its blue stockings, hip-hop’s aesthetic remains too raunchy and lawless for general consumption. “We would be vehemently opposed to any lyrics about violence and drugs,” LaNeve told Automotive News. “But we can’t control that. Our attitude would be to stay out of it. If something came up that is portrayed as harmful to society or the product image, we would try to look into that.”

    If? Do they get MTV in Detroit? [LA times]

Ironically, the farther the company distances itself from the playa image – and white 50-years old jamming to Led Zeppelin is about as far from it as you can get – the more the bling culture will embrace a product. They playa culture wants to partake of “real class” as a symbol of “making it” on its own terms. In a way it is embracing that which is most likely to reject it on a cultural level, but business is business, and while Cadillac, Cristal and Gucci aren’t going to acknowledge their “other” image, they aren’t going to turn down the sales either.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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