The Great Depression was a troubled time in US history. Poverty, unemployment, and supply rationing defined the times. Some US businesses failed the test, while others weathered the storm – and eventually came out ahead – with either increased market share or a reliable reputation.

While our purpose here isn’t to dissect the political and historical reasons for the depression, it’s essential to recognize the financial climate during those times. In sum, the national income dropped roughly 60% in a matter of a few years – from $87.8 billion in 1929 to $75.7 billion in 1930 to just $42.5 billion in 1932.

Advertising During the Great Depression at a Glance

As the economy tanked, advertising became more important and a lot shadier.

  • Advertisers of the day struggled to find effective marketing strategies.
  • Many launched into a frantic battle of ferocious competition and fear-mongering, as they sought to win US consumers dwindling dollars.
  • Let’s not forget there was little regulation of “truth in advertising” at the time, so back-biting competitors were likely to make unrealistic claims or even tell blatant lies to the public with their marketing.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) did exist, and an energetic truth in advertising campaign was in the works. But it was a young organization, and communications needed to be made mostly by US mail, phone calls and wire. The FTC’s response to complaints was naturally much slower than today.

Print advertising reigned. Radio was blossoming. It was a slippery, shady time for advertisers.

But not for Cadillac.

Cadillac Built Their Legendary Luxury Image During the Great Depression

Throughout the Thirties, Cadillac built its brand by manufacturing and marketing the most exclusive luxury vehicles available on the market. Cadillac already had a reputation for luxury and technology, thanks to their innovations like the first electric start ignition and the first enclosed cabin and continued to build on tech advancements, driver comfort, performance, and luxury. They were forced to scale back production but never dropped their prices. Nor did they make any sacrifices in the quality or performance departments.

  • While competitors like Packard made-do by producing median cost vehicles for the average consumer, Cadillac produced significantly smaller numbers of extraordinary cars.

“Foremost among them was that magnificent 1930 surprise, the Sixteen, carrying an overhead-valve, 452-cubic-inch V-16 engine producing 165 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. Horsepower was increased to 185 in 1934,” according to the auto editors of Consumers Guide.

Let’s not forget, these vehicles came at premium costs – ranging from about $5,000 to $10,000 – the kind of money folks could spend on a new house! It was a time when the average working family couldn’t afford a second vehicle, much less a luxury vehicle worth more than their home. Only the most affluent, the upper-crust, could dare to own them.

Their print advertising was elegant, simple and never felt rushed.

Was it All in the Advertising?

Today, we can speculate that one of the reasons Cadillac held on to the luxury auto audience was that it was a member of the GM family, with other makes and models to fill in the gaps in their bottom line from time to time. And that might – or might not – be true.

The fact remains that an unbending dedication to luxury vehicles branded the company, for generations to come, as the very best. Cadillac didn’t deign to compete for the average working income but waited for the truly wealthy to approach. Decades passed before Cadillac began offering more economical options, but they were still among the highest-priced and most respected vehicles on the road.

Our Role

Here at Onstage, our primary mission is to provide luxury program books, and digital signage for the performing artsOur audience is wealthy and well educated, and sometimes thrifty. They recognize the value of private education, higher learning, and the reputation of quality brands. Want to learn more about marketing to an affluent audience? Reach out to our branding experts today!

Related Reading & Resources:

Influence of Advertising During the Great Depression

FTC: Truth in Advertising

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