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Cadillac Propelled by 'Slade Star Power

Escalade-driving celebrities help rekindle interest in a luxury brand that has lost its luster in recent years

November 24, 2002|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant showed up at the mysterious party at an abandoned bank on South Flower Street in downtown Los Angeles, as did Leonardo DiCaprio and Rosanna and Patricia Arquette. They and a few hundred other guests had been lured by the vaguely worded invitation from one of L.A.'s premier celebrity-party organizers: "Jeffrey Best and Cadillac present Club EXT."

It sounded like the opening of a new nightclub, with a typical guest list of trendsetters and buzz-generators. Staff were dressed all in black. Rock music pulsated through the darkness. Partygoers danced in cages on platforms.

But the guest of honor at the January 2001 bash, greeting visitors as they entered, stood still: It was a Cadillac Escalade EXT, the pickup truck version of the $50,000 Escalade sport utility vehicle.

The truck was being shown publicly for the first time, a day before it was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The party was part of a plan to help Cadillac, the General Motors Corp. luxury brand popular mainly with the retired golf set, capture that elusive hipness factor and appeal to the under-60 crowd -- and if possible even to thirtysomethings.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 366 words Type of Material: Correction
Cadillac Escalade -- A Nov. 24 Business section article on the Cadillac Escalade reported that Laker basketball player Kobe Bryant attended a January 2001 party hosted by Cadillac. In fact, Bryant did not attend the party and has no marketing or endorsement relationship with Cadillac.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 123 words Type of Material: Correction
Cadillac Escalade -- An article in the Nov. 24 Business section on the Cadillac Escalade reported that Laker basketball player Kobe Bryant attended a January 2001 party hosted by Cadillac. In fact, Bryant did not attend the party and has no marketing or endorsement relationship with Cadillac.

On their way out of the party, guests were given black T-shirts bearing the Cadillac wreath and crest. Before long, people wearing the T-shirts began showing up in trendy L.A. fitness clubs -- a home run for GM marketers, bringing more cachet to Cadillac than any multimillion-dollar ad campaign could.

Thus did Cadillac break through to members of the finicky "in" crowd who are meticulous about where they live and what they wear -- and drive -- and who can afford the gas-gulping truck that gets 12 to 15 miles per gallon.

Before long, Jennifer Lopez was singing about her "'Slade" in "Love Don't Cost a Thing." The Escalade also worked its way into lyrics of songs by rappers Nelly ("Then I slide up in an Escalade, inside it's like an Ice Capade"), South Park Mexican, Lox, E40, Tela and 112. The hulking SUV appeared in music videos by recording artists Ludacris and Usher. In the music video "Can't Deny It," featuring Fabolous and Nate Dogg, the Escalade is the star of the clip, with slow, panning shots caressing the truck's angular panels.

On television, the Escalade is featured on "JAG" and "The Bernie Mac Show." Craig Bullock, who goes by the name DJ Homicide of the group Sugar Ray, showed off four gigantic speakers in the back of his 'Slade on the MTV show "Cribs," which looks at the homes and possessions of the rich and famous.

On the big screen, the Escalade was one of the cars Nicholas Cage had to steal in "Gone in 60 Seconds," and an Escalade figures prominently in the sequel of "The Matrix."

"You can't buy buzz, but you can create it," said Susan Docherty, the Escalade's marketing manager. "This market is not about what older people think, but what younger people do."

That young people suddenly are finding a Cadillac cool is a remarkable turn for a division that in recent years has fallen from being the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. to fourth place. The truck seems to be everywhere in the pop-culture landscape, and its popularity has taken on a life of its own that goes beyond what Cadillac had hoped or planned for.

"It's the car of Muhammad Ali, Elvis, kings and queens, and U.S. presidents," said Cadillac General Manager Mark LaNeve.

Auto industry observers say celebrities caught on because of the Escalade's size, opulence and in-your-face look. "The Escalade has a mystique. It ... just reeks of testosterone," said automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland of consulting firm DRI- WEFA. "It's big and tough. But it has all these creature comforts."


The Luxury SUV

Ford Motor Co. was first to enter the full-size luxury SUV market with the Lincoln Navigator, essentially a variant of the Ford Expedition that was launched in the fall of 1997. Cadillac followed in 1998 with the first-generation Escalade, basically a gussied-up Chevy Tahoe.

Sales of the Escalade edged out those of the Navigator last year, 31,816 to 31,759. Through the first 10 months of this year, the Escalade has pushed even further ahead, with 40,665 sold against 24,923 Navigators. (Those are good numbers for a colossal SUV, though still far short of the more mainstream equivalents sold by Chevrolet and Ford, which sell well over 100,000 a year.)

The key to the Escalade's appeal, some say, is that it combines the 98-year-old brand's past glory with state-of-the-art power and technology.

"Cadillac was always what you associate with dominating the freeways," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of social and cultural studies at UC Berkeley who teaches a class called Automobiles and American Society. "Look at the '59 Cadillac with all those fins. The spirit of the '59 Cadillac breathes somewhere in the Escalade."

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