DETROIT — It’s been a long time since Cadillac has been the subject of a love song.
Not since Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” has a ballad for a luxury car brand gotten as much traction as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s ode to Cadillac, “White Walls.” The artists performed it last year on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” The video has been viewed about 16.6 million times on YouTube.
“I want to be free. I want to just live, inside my Cadillac,” rapper Macklemore begins the video, which before standing in front of an American flag and spelling out the brand’s name. The video flashes images of Cadillacs — from tailfin-era cars to the recent SRX sport-utility vehicle — as the lyric tells of buying an old Cadillac and smiling like he won the lottery.
Cadillac’s moment in the pop-culture spotlight brings the brand a cultural currency to go alongside last year’s 48 percent increase in car sales.
Parent company General Motors sought to extend that run with this week’s Detroit auto show introduction of the 2015 Cadillac ATS coupe. The sporty two-door car features the brand’s simplified crest, shorn of the longtime laurel wreath. It is one of three new Cadillacs reaching U.S. showrooms this year that Bob Ferguson, the brand’s leader, said should help boost sales in the U.S. by more than 10 percent this year.
Macklemore’s song joins Lorde’s “Royals” and Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” as new songs featuring the American brand.
“You turn on the radio, whether it’s country or pop, Cadillac is mentioned frequently,” Ferguson said Tuesday in an interview at the auto show. “It helps the brand.”
GM said it didn’t pay for Cadillac to be associated with the songs.
“It’s the sort of thing that Cadillac really couldn’t have bought,” Eric Noble, president of industry consultant Car Lab, said last week of the new exposure. “It keeps awareness for the brand high with youth culture and with pop culture, and if Cadillac is going to be successful going forward, they have to have that.”
The attention underscores GM’s effort to rebuild Cadillac after losing its way with such duds as the Cimarron compact car in the 1980s, which Time magazine dubbed one of the worst cars ever made. The downside of the buzz is that it falls beyond GM’s control.
“Cadillac wants people to stop thinking their cars are boulevard cruisers with floaty suspensions and vague steering,” Dave Sullivan, an industry analyst with AutoPacific, said in an e-mail.
New Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra takes the reins Wednesday from retiring Dan Akerson, who has talked about rebuilding Cadillac into a global power that can take on Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz and targeting 1 million sales in the next 10 years, or five times as many as in 2012. GM is betting that higher-margin Cadillacs, including the new ATS coupe, will help offset a decline in highly profitable pickup sales that may come with tougher U.S. government emissions and fuel-efficiency regulations.
Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, is a 30-year- old Seattle musician whose track “Thrift Shop,” about buying second-hand clothes and eschewing commercialism, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last year. “White Walls” is from the same album.
Once he started to make money as a musician, Macklemore got a 2008 Cadillac DTS Biarritz, a large four-door cruiser, his manager Zach Quillen said last week in a telephone interview. Macklemore’s song talks about buying his Caddy from a “geezer.”
“He’s obviously done pretty well this year and he could really get any car that he wants,” Quillen said. “But he loves that car.”
The song’s video, which features drivers white, black and Latino, earned praise from automotive blog Jalopnik, which wrote in September that it “explains everything good about Cadillac” and illustrates classic Cadillacs’ luxury appeal to anyone “from punks to geriatrics and everyone in between.”
While paying for product placement can help sway opinions about a brand, an artist naturally singing about it gives a different impression.
“It’s a big boon,” said Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. If “others are talking and doing it for you, that says the image you want to be, there’s something real to it.”
The tradeoff is that the brand may not want to embrace the whole message.
“At what point do you relinquish control?” Rucker said.
Cadillac’s previous limelight moment illustrates what can be the boom-and-bust nature of pop-culture favor. About a decade ago the brand, especially Escalade sport-utility vehicles, became a favorite prop in rap videos and lyrics. The CTS featured prominently in the movie “Matrix Reloaded” in 2003. Midway through HBO’s “The Sopranos,” mob boss Tony Soprano traded up from a Chevrolet Suburban to an Escalade.
The Escalade mentions started to fade as the brand’s product grew dated and big SUVs fell from favor. For rappers, Jalopnik said in October, “Escalades aren’t where it’s at anymore.”
Alex Park, a Cadillac dealer near Cleveland, said he noticed Cadillac’s mention in pop culture seemed to wane a few years ago.
“There’s definitely a resurgence of the Cadillac brand going on,” he said, noting that he’s seeing young buyers and more people trading BMWs and Lexus cars for ATSs. “There’s no other way to make a 21-year-old kid think something is cool unless it really is. You can’t kid those people.”
The latest attention comes as Cadillac is bringing out 10 new or redesigned products by the end of 2015, including the ATS and CTS. Total Cadillac sales gained 22 percent in the U.S. last year and 67 percent in China.
The new ATS compact sedan drove much of the increase. The redesigned CTS mid-size car, which began arriving in showrooms in September, will be called on to bolster GM’s efforts to rebuild the luxury brand this year, as will a redesigned Escalade and the new ELR plug-in hybrid.
Changes to the CTS helped send the average price paid for the model in the U.S. to a record $50,949 in December, compared with an average of $40,110 in 2008, according to Edmunds.com, a website that tracks new automotive sales.
The new version of the CTS may boost the model’s sales by 25 percent in the U.S. this year, according to IHS Automotive. Cadillac brand sales may rise 6.8 percent with the new products this year, Alan Baum, an analyst with Baum & Associates, said in an e-mail.
While the product is getting better, Noble said there’s still room for improvement, especially in the upper end of the car market with a better large luxury car.
“So does the video exhibit the sort of potential the brand has?” Noble said. “Absolutely. None of that will matter if Cadillac doesn’t execute.”
Macklemore said he struggled over whether to write “White Walls.”
He had been working with a collaborator, Hollis Wong-Wear, on song ideas over breakfast, he wrote last year on his website.
“At one of these eat a bagel/drink coffee/write until your hand hurts sessions, Hollis hit me with ‘You should write a song about your Cadillac,’ ” he recalled.
His first response was, “Hell no,” he wrote that he told her. “I’m the anti-consumption, socially aware, don’t-let- logos-define-us guy. My fans would hate me.”
On further reflection, he had a change of heart.
“As much as I’m aware of the things I listed above, I’m also a complete contradiction to them as well,” he wrote. “And I love Cadillacs.”
— With assistance from Andy Fixmer in Los Angeles