Cadillac and the Ad that Became a Legend

Cadillac's most popular ad didn't even mention the car.

A Cadillac car from the 1950s
rtguest / Shutterstock

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From its earliest days, the Cadillac Automobile Company aimed to distinguish itself for the engineering and luxurious style of its vehicles. It introduced the first self-starting engine, the first fully enclosed body, and, in 1915, the first V-8 in a production automobile. Named the “Type 51,” the car had 70 horsepower, could travel over 65 miles per hour, and was priced at eight times the cost of a Model T. To impress potential buyers, Cadillac began a series of ads in the Post to promote Cadillac’s innovative spirit and industry leadership. One of these ads, “The Penalty of Leadership,” became legendary. It didn’t show the automobile or even mention it. Instead, it told of the criticism, doubts, and second-guessing that anyone must ignore to become the best in their field (implying themselves). In tone and idea, it spoke to the hearts of aspiring entrepreneurs and artists, concluding with, “That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live — lives.”

The ad appeared only once, and only in the Post, but it was extremely popular. Cadillac found itself responding to requests for reprints for the next 30 years. One of those prints was framed and hung in Elvis Presley’s office at Graceland.

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 merely mediocre, he will be left severely alone – if he achieve 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 donem those who are disappointed or envious continue to cry out that it can not be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountebank, long after the big world had acclaimed him its greatest artisitic 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 contunued 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 dpreciate 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 the 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 calmor of denial. That which deserves to live – lives.
The “Penalty of Leadership” ad that ran in the January 2, 1915 Post. (Click to Enlarge)


This article is featured in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. I had previously subscribed to the SEP but stopped. I recalled reading an article about what some felt was the “Best sweatshirt ever.” On reviewing some of the issues I’d saved, I was unable to relocate said article. Any help in recalling the name of the person or company that produced that sweatshirt would be greatly appreciated.

  2. The ad is STILL remarkable 105 years later. No ad person today would be smart or clever enough to write anything like it. Of course most people today wouldn’t be smart enough to understand it, so I guess it’s best those of us that are, just remember this one.


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