Monday, August 20, 2007

The 1915 Cadillac had a problem...

Cadillac has always been a luxury automobile. Starting in 1905, the highest-end Cadillac models featured an incredibly dependable four-cylinder engine. Cadillac’s were quite expensive, at the time a Ford cost about $400 and a Cadillac cost anywhere from $2,000 to $2,800. Purchasing a Cadillac was hardly a casual or impulse buy. Cadillac traded on its sterling reputation of being a dependable car.

When Cadillac’s primary competitor in the opulent automobile market, Packard Motors, came out with a six cylinder engine on their new luxury models—Cadillac felt pressured to respond in kind. In a most American fashion, Cadillac leapfrogged past Packard and introduced a high speed V-8 engine. After all, two more cylinders must be better than six, right?

Well, unfortunately for the folks at Cadillac the answer was—no.

As author, Stephen Fox, describes in “The Mirror Makers” (one of my favorite books):
“The V-8 was skittery at first, prone to short circuits and fires. Packard made the most of Cadillac’s problems.”

That sure put them in a pickle.

Cadillac’s reputation as a manufacturer of well built, dependable automobiles was now in serious question. Mr. Theodore F. MacManus, as the fellow in charge of Cadillac’s advertising program needed to respond and fast.

His response was radical.

He wrote and placed an advertorial.

Sorta, kinda.

The ad only ran once in the Saturday Evening Post in 1915. The ad was in stark black and white in an era of splashy full color magazine ad pages. Nowhere in the ad copy are Cadillac, cylinders, or even the automotive industry mentioned. Except for a small logo placed in the top right corner of the decorative border and another embedded in the center below—you would not even know who or what the ad was for!

But it was quite a read. The Penalty of Leadership, written by Theodore F. MacManus is considered one of the greatest and most influential advertisements of all time.

The Penalty of Leadership

"In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man's work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be mediocre, he will be left severely alone - if he achieves a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a -wagging. Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius. Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious, continue to cry out that it cannot be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountback, long after the big would had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all. The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by. The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy - but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant. There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions - envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains - the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live—lives."

And you know what? The ad worked. Cadillac’s reputation was saved.
And Packard?
Well, it’s gone.
Died in 1958.

It’s not the prose of the ad copy itself that made it so famous. The narrative today seems archaic and even then was considered a bit stuffy. No, it is the corporate problem that the ad solved so handily that has made it so memorable.

So, why did the ad work?
Well, Mr. MacManus’ own opinion was this:
“The real suggestion to convey is that the man manufacturing the product is an honest man, and that the product is an honest product, to be preferred above all others.”

In case you haven’t noticed.
I love the history of advertising!


jak said...

thanks larry
that is a great post

gretchen havens, houston said...

I love advertising history, too, Larry! Just came to your blog to get details on the Cadillac "Leadership" ad. Thanks for the good info. I've been meaning to get "The Mirror Makers" and your enthusiasm for it is sending me on my way to Amazon right now.

Larry Marder said...

Glad to be of help, Gretchen. You will be very glad that you ordered "Mirror Makers!"

veesixteen said...

Hi Larry. You say: "the ad was in stark black and white in an era of splashy full color magazine ad pages". So far as the Cadillac car is concerned, the firm only started using color ads 10 years later, in 1925. If you have any Cadillac ad in color prior to 1925, I'd be interested in acquiring a copy.

stevemcclure said...

That should presumably be "mountebank," not "mountback."