Sorry Cadillac, We're Not Ready for Jerks Yet

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Why do we work so hard? Is it for a pool in our suburban backyard, a pair of cotton pants that would have looked stuffy on Pete Campbell from Mad Men 50 years ago or the keys to your grandfather's favorite luxury car brand?

Or is it to prop up a failing automaker with nearly $50 billion in government money, only to take a $10 billion loss on the deal and discover that said company still can't install a decent ignition switch? These weren't the questions General Motors  (GM) was asking when it ran a confrontational ad for its Cadillac ELR that made excuses for U.S. excess and made light of other countries' work ethic and days off, but that's the fight it picked.

And lost.

Cadillac ran that spot with poor Neal McDonough as the aloof materialist in question during the Winter Olympics, presumably to remind the country that we're No. 1 even if the medals table or just about any other global measure don't indicate the same. Hey, "because we're crazy-driven, hard-working believers," so why shouldn't we flaunt some "stuff" that's "the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N'est-ce pas?"

Let's just pretend, for a second, that N'est-ce pas translates to "I haven't been paying attention to economic and social reality in this country for at least 10 years" instead of "isn't it so." Just to get our Caddy-driving friend up to speed, the U.S. lost nearly 9 million jobs during the recession. Unfortunately, the National Employment Law Project notes that 60% of all jobs lost during the recession paid middle-income wages or better, while 65% of the more than 6 million jobs recovered since then have been low-wage. So yeah, people are working hard, but for a lot less money.

Even if that job manages to buy workers some "stuff," it's not keeping them from being absolutely miserable. A Salary.com survey that found only 38.5% of Americans felt fulfilled by their jobs, while only 52% said they were totally committed to their work. Only 19.5% put in extra hours because they enjoy their work and 72% are motivated solely by their paycheck. Meanwhile, Gallup found that roughly 52% of all full-time workers in the U.S. are not involved in their work and put only as much into it as they're forced to. Of those, 18% are "actively disengaged" and so bitter about their work that they're actively trying to sabotage the workplace and make life miserable for everyone else.

Yep, the guy in the Caddy would poison the water cooler it he thought it would get him out of that office any quicker.


But he puts his head down and he stays, because that's what a Caddy man does. That financing deal he signed up for isn't going to pay itself, after all.

Besides, his employers know that guy's anchored in place by his mortgage, car payments and credit card bills from all his "stuff" and they have no problem leveraging that fact.  Yet another survey by Gallup finds that since the economic crisis peaked in 2009, there's been no better time to exploit the U.S. workforce for longer hours and less pay. A full 43% of U.S. workers are afraid they're going to have their benefits cut, down just slightly from 46% in 2009. Another 31% see a pay cut in their future, which is nearly the same as the 32% from four years earlier. Meanwhile, 29% are worried they'll be laid off, which is a smaller percentage than the 32% in 2009, but still greater than the 26% who feared getting the fired in 2010. If they did lose their jobs, 29% of U.S. workers surveyed by Cigna said they would exhaust their resources in a month or less.

But not everyone wants to be Caddy guy, especially not folks like Detroit Dirt composting and urban farming coalition founder Pashon Murray. She turned into a spokeswoman for Ford's C-Max hybrid vehicle just to offer a real-life, shot-for-shot counterpoint to Cadillac's argument for embracing greed.

Murray's argument for entrepreneurial spirit and making the world a better place drive Ford's ad and do a great job of obscuring the fact that Cadillac's pompous commercial was supposed to be promoting a plug-in hybrid. It also draws the line between a young, city-dwelling, forward-thinking business owner and a older, suburban elitist trying to hold onto the lead and run out the clock.

Without mentioning that the C-Max's Electronic Miles Per Gallon Equivalent of 100 MPGe absolutely dwarfs the ELR's 82 -- or that its hybrid engine's combined 43 MPG makes the ELR's 33 look like a gas guzzler -- Ford opens a cultural chasm that Cadillac smugly dove into head first.

The Harvard Crimson notes that while 47% of Harvard graduates took jobs in finance just before the recession in 2007, only 15% of graduates in 2013 planned to do the same. A full 20% say they'd rather work in health care a decade from now than in any other field, which wasn't such a bad decision considering Forbes' assertion that Wall Street is still laying off more workers than it's hiring. Meanwhile, those fat Wall Street bonuses that used to reel in all the business school talent have fallen 38% in the last year, according to eFinancialCareers.

It's not just the Class of 2013 that's shunning a money grab for work they feel is more meaningful. The National Association of High School Scholars recently issued the results of its own survey asking college students where they dreamed of working. The top answer: the St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., which supplanted former No. 1 Google  (GOOG). Of the top 25 places students wanted to work, St. Jude joined The Mayo Clinic, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and "my local hospital" among the top choices. While Apple, Google and Disney still found spots in the top 10, the shift toward health care jobs and government positions with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency indicate that personal fulfillment trumps finance for a broad swath of the younger generation.

And there's Cadillac's problem: A generation that adores Elon Musk, his Tesla  (TSLA) vehicles and his lofty plans to make the world a better place through technology has just about no use for a Cadillac. Despite a more than 20% jump in sales in 2013, Cadillac sales are still roughly half those of Toyota's Lexus division and dropped more than 6% in March while Lexus sales soared by 23%. Meanwhile, Tesla's footprint is expanding and its current vehicles already give the new ELR stiff competition in both price and prestige. Tesla's lack of a combustion engine already gives it a distinct advantage, but pressing forward as a do-good company trying to right the wrongs committed by the large, bailed out U.S. automakers also undercuts Cadillac's position among eco-friendly carbuyers.

The lesson Cadillac should take away here, but probably won't, is that there has to be more behind an automaker's pitch than misplaced jingoism and pre-recession arrogance. The share of new cars being bought by Americans between 18 and 34 is down 30% in the last five years, according to auto-pricing site Edmunds.com. A Pew Research Center study notes that people under 35 bought 12% fewer cars than they did in 2010. The Department of Transportation notes that just 28% of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses in 2010, with just 45% of 17-year-olds claiming the same. That's plummeted from 50% and 66% respectively in 1978. Overall, as DC Streets Blog and the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund point out, Americans are driving roughly 6% fewer miles than they were in 2004.

Just to get people behind the wheel -- especially younger people -- you have to make them believe that there's some point to owning a car beyond flaunting wealth and sitting in traffic. They have to think that's it is contributing to some greater good at minimal cost to the world around them. They want to be part of the solution, not a hoarding loner contributing to the problem. By painting itself as a greedy, self-aggrandizing jerk, Cadillac just pushed itself deeper into the latter category. N'est-ce pas?

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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