Wednesday, May 31, 2023


 I went down a rabbit hole yesterday that led to another rabbit hole, and another, and I wound up at Cadillac. 

Specifically, I found an answer for a cultural oddity that I observed growing up: the number of older black men driving Cadillacs, which was far out of proportion to the number driving other luxury models. It was particularly odd because Cadillacs weren't particularly reliable, even though they were expensive. 

This was a detail that buried itself in my mind for decades, unsolved. I found my answer yesterday, and it reminded me of my mom. 

Cadillac, as a brand, was dying in the early 1930s. The Depression made demand plummet for the brand by 84 percent, which was surely a death blow. 

A marketing executive, though, had another idea. 

Cadillac, as part of creating a prestige image for their brand, wouldn't sell Cadillacs to black people. Black customers had to use a white intermediary or buy their vehicles used. 

Here's a description of what happened next, thanks to a middle manager named Nicholas Dreystadt:
...Dreystadt said he had a plan to make Cadillac profitable in eighteen months, Depression or no Depression. The first part of his plan resulted from an observation he had made traveling around the country to the service departments of Cadillac dealerships. Cadillac was after the “prestige market,” and part of its strategy to capture that market was its refusal to sell to blacks. Despite this official discrimination, Dreystadt had noted that an astonishing number of customers at the service departments consisted of members of the nation’s tiny black elite: the boxers, singers, doctors, and lawyers who earned large incomes despite the flourishing Jim Crow atmosphere of the 1930s. Most status symbols were not available to these people. They couldn’t live in fancy neighborhoods or patronize fancy nightclubs. But getting around Cadillac’s policy of refusing to sell was easy: They just paid white men to front for them.

Dreystadt urged the executive committee to go after this market... The board bought his reasoning, and in 1934 Cadillac sales increased by 70 percent, and the division actually broke even.

So what I was seeing as I was growing up, in short, was loyalty to a company in response to how they treated a community by marketing to them when other brands wouldn't.

Like I said, this reminded me of my mom. 

When she was divorced in the early 1960s, every local merchant she dealt with revoked her credit. Incredibly so, but this was the 1960s, and divorced women were considered liabilities. 

One store, though, didn't do that. It was Wilson's Pharmacy, and they didn't take mom's credit away. 

As the years passed, and other pharmacies opened in our little town, Wilson's became more expensive than everyone else, not just with prescriptions, but everything else, too, because it had an eccentric selection of merchandise and gifts. 

I never understood why mom kept shopping there. One day, though, she told me the story, and I understood. 


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