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Cadillac in the "Madmen" Era: Advertising Mid-Century Luxury

By Llewellyn Hedgbeth

Cadillac, a U.S. marque since 1902, built some of its best cars during the post-WWII boom, and from 1949-1962, advertised them as prestigious luxuries. General Motors, with Chief stylist Harley J. Earl leading the charge, brought out innovations now called classic: tailfins, lots of chrome and polished stainless steel, and wraparound windshields. Bankers who'd already proven themselves, businessmen trying to make it, Jewish and black workers hoping to achieve the American dream but blocked from attaining it — all were anxious to have an impressive car that was also dependable and a sound investment in their futures. GM's Cadillac was happy to oblige.

It was aided in that by its long-time advertising firm MacManus, John and Adams. Founder Theodore F. MacManus had been a newspaper reporter who migrated to working with advertising firm Erwin, Wasey & Co. before opening his own agency in September 1916. His firm specialized largely in automotive advertising, with Cadillac, Dodge and Hupmobile among its clients. MacManus wrote a famous Cadillac all-text ad that ran just once — in the January 2, 1915 edition of The Saturday Evening Post — entitled "The Penalty of Leadership."

Cadillac Penalty of Leadership Ad.


In every field of human endeavour, 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 mountebank, 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.

Cadillac had brought out a V8 Touring car but did so before all the bugs were worked out. Packard mounted an attack with rumors that the car was unreliable. MacManus's ad, entitled "The Penalty of Leadership," mentioned Cadillac only in the border surrounding the text and explained that envy in others was occasioned only by companies honoring "standards of excellence". Almost immediately Cadillac was besieged with customer requests for copies of the ad, and sales boomed.

Some years afterwards MacManus was joined by W. A. P. John and James R. Adams who had worked on the Cadillac account at Campbell-Ewald and continued to advertise Cadillacs. The firm didn't always get things right, however. On March 29, 1956, Ernest Jones, then President of the firm, spoke to the Pittsburgh Advertising Club, saying that TV advertising might be OK for low-cost goods but that a 60-second commercial couldn't deliver the sort of consumer interested in purchasing high-priced durable products. Tell that to firms now advertising Lexus, Mercedes, or Jaguar. And speaking of Jaguar, it might be of passing interest to some that this season's (2012) Episode 12 of "Mad Men" mentioned MacManus as one of the firms competing with Sterling Cooper for the Jaguar account. Side Bar: text of that ad: You can also link to an original of the ad in favorites.

In the fifties, it was Jim Adams who handled the Cadillac account for MacManus and who consciously advertised the car to those on their way up. Purportedly, he said he wasn't selling a mechanism but rather a state of mind.

For more than a decade, Cadillac print ads sometimes focused on family values and heralded the car's practicality, good mileage, safety, durability, and economy. Cadillac made a more concerted effort, however, to appeal to those who yearned for luxury. Their ads depicted beautiful people in prominent locales, designer fashions, fine jewelry and furs, and an elegant, well-made car. The Cadillac, noted one 1949 ad, offered "authentic testimony as to its owner's good taste, his standing in his community, [and] his success in the world of affairs." [Editor's note: no pun intended.]

As one 1953 ad had it, Cadillac was the "first love" of 20 million motorists "who would rather own a Cadillac than any other make car built in the land." Their love for the car was easily explained since the car was "supremely beautiful", with interiors "gracious and luxurious almost beyond description." Cadillac was confident that "one look and one ride" were all it would take to have customers agree that this was "the perfect year for making [their] motor car dreams come true!"

Praise for Cadillac built continuously, even outside the automotive community. Also in 1953, for instance, an ad for fine furs also highlighted a valued Cadillac. Northwood Fur Farms featured a woman and her daughter in knee-length fur coats, alongside a green Cadillac. A collaborative ad showing five products in 1955 heralded this slogan: "Recognized as the height of quality throughout the world". The five products, seemingly unrelated, were Cadillac, Ceil Chapman (a Marilyn Monroe favorite) gowns, Schumacher wallpapers, Trifari costume jewelry, and Du Mont televisions.

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