Complex Made Simple

Here’s how Cadillac revolutionised the advertising industry

By Nadim Ghrayeb

For brands at the top of their game, success can often be accompanied by opportunity and challenge in equal measure. This is as true today as it was more than 100 years ago and brands can still learn a lot from their predecessors of the last century.

In 1915, Cadillac, a brand synonymous with excellence and innovation, met resistance as it launched the world’s first mass-produced car with a water-cooled, V-Typed, 8-cylinder V8 engine. As is so often the case for innovators in every field, competitors at the time were quick to question and criticise Cadillac’s engineering breakthrough and industry leadership.

Cadillac responded with ‘The Penalty of Leadership,’ a persuasive piece of advertising that has been heralded for changing not only the fortunes of the brand, but also the whole culture of advertising. It marked a so-called watershed moment for the advertising industry, as was similarly observed in subsequent decades with the likes of Clairol (‘Does she…or doesn’t she?’), Apple (‘1984’) and more recently Dove (‘Campaign for Real Beauty’).

The 409-word declaration highlighted the penalties in store for those striving to consistently maintain high standards of excellence:

“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…”

Long before the ‘Father of Advertising’, David Ogilvy declared, “Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image,” Cadillac was providing a timeless lesson in brand communications for future generations.

The Penalty of Leadership

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Cadillac had a deep understanding of the market, the competition and, most importantly, the target audience at that time. This was for the copywriter, Theodore F. MacManus, an important basis on which to not only confront Cadillac’s naysayers, but also distil the brand identity and elicit an emotional response from the reader. Knowing your audience, knowing your brand and knowing how to be emotive – be they in a newspaper ad in 1915 or Instagram post in 2017 – remain, to this day, three key elements for creating compelling content and practicing good brand communications.

‘The Penalty of Leadership’ was only published once, in the Saturday Evening Post, and withheld any mention of Cadillac except for an image of the brand’s logo at the top right-hand corner of the page and a short line at the bottom. Printed in black and white, without photos or colorful images, the copy strongly contrasted with the then popular style of brand communication, which was to explain why consumers should pick one brand’s product over another.

Shortly after the piece was published, Cadillac received a plethora of customer requests for copies. The timeless appeal of the ad copy echoed through the decades and in 1945 was voted “The Greatest Ad of All Time”. In later years, the power of the text perpetuated with one of the most significant American cultural icons of the twentieth century, the ‘King of Rock and Roll,’ Elvis Presley, even framing a copy on the wall of his office in Graceland.

Furthermore, as does any good effective advertisement, it also helped achieve any marketer’s number one aim: sales. On top of dispelling competitor negativity, defining the brand identity and providing inspiration to individuals through the ages also gave Cadillac a sales boom. Not a bad result for an afternoon’s work for a lowly copywriter from upstate New York.

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Nadim Ghrayeb is Regional Marketing Manager at Cadillac Middle East