I've been seeing a commercial for Buick a lot lately that tries to redefine the whole idea of "luxury." In this spot, the word and the brand that represents it have more to do with finding meaning in your life than the love of glam. Check it out:
Judging from its images, which show family-oriented, suburban middle-class types, you get the idea that the tag "your kind of luxury" is addressed to people who don't think of themselves as particularly rich. They're unpretentious, "come as you are" folks.
This sort of appeal may be part of brand tradition. Consumer Culture scholar James B. Twitchell has written "Buick has had a history of being a car for strivers who have not quite made it."
So the suggestion that this more everyday-folks sort of luxury "isn't luxury the way you've always known it" but something new, isn't completely true -- because we have seen a variation of it in other Buick ads. Here is Twitchell again, on a Buick campaign from the late 90s:
"Now Buick does have a luxury car, the Park Avenue. But the Century is an underling now positioned as 'A luxury car for everyone.' The TV ad reinforces this positioning. In one commercial we see scenes of family bliss, as the voice-over by the actor Willem Defoe asks: 'Are rich people taller than the rest of us? Are their loved ones more deserving of an air bag? Was the sun created solely for their enjoyment?'"
What I do think is unusual, though, is what I mentioned earlier: the way the spot redefines "luxury" as a "life of meaning" -- and somehow connects this to its cars.
The credit here goes to copywriting -- because the script (intoned by "everyman" Kevin Bacon) makes the transition from the values sermon at the beginning to the brand copy at the end with a seamless grace.
And the ease with which it achieves this is all the more remarkable when you realize that this spot really contains two scripts.
The values speech at the beginning is actually adapted from a poem by Michael Josephson, the head of an organization whose goal it to encourage people to be more ethical -- and kinder -- in their everyday lives. The "brand script" at the end of the spot is written to payoff the poem by connecting its values to Buick.
It does this well enough where you almost don't question the connection it draws. Buick is a brand that expresses these -- and your -- values. It is a company that knows a meaningful life is "the greatest luxury of all." Because of this high-mindedness, the logic goes, it makes cars of substance and quality.
In short, what's implied is that Buick offers you a more solid, dependable car than the trendy ones people who like to show off prefer (perhaps these are superficial nouveau-riche types?). If in the old Marxian theory machines were "congealed labor", Buick, in this spot, becomes a set of ideals on wheels.
A Shift in Cultural Mood?
The playing off of ethical materialism against the more flashy kind isn't new. In fact, if this spot is designed to appeal (as Twitchell's comments would suggest) to social sectors still on the rise, you could categorize it as classic. Classes striving to get ahead commonly characterize themselves as more moral than the "decadent" folks above them.
Nevertheless, the spot's redefinition of luxury seems a real shift. It wasn't so long ago that populist heroes were celebrated for their shameless flaunting of the signs of wealth in their gaudiest forms. Here is Twitchell again, writing about Donald Trump in the late 90s:
"Perhaps the only person who really qualifies as the Ur-yuppie is a superannuated one, Donald Trump. The Donald has become an eidolon of opuluxe on steroids. Not only has he moved through serial marriages complete with fathering a daughter named after a store (Tiffany), not only has he demonstrated his unflagging interest in pimping objects brandishing his name, but he has remained unrepentantly materialistic. It's me, me, me. If old-style luxury was about subtly advertising that you had money, Trump has removed all the subtlety."
Despite Trump's momentary surge as a Tea Party candidate, you have to wonder if in troubled economic times like ours his type of glitzy "winning is the only thing" sort of ambition plays as well as it once did.
And in this light, maybe this spot can be read as a longing for a sort of "capitalism with a human face" -- i.e., a mode of everyday life that's a bit less dog-eat-dog, where people play and work a little more nicely. Thoughts?