Rothenberg and Shafer

Rothenberg and Shafer

New books dissected over email.
Nov. 30 1998 4:37 PM

Rothenberg and Shafer

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"And on the Eighth Day ... The Friendly Corporation ... Lots of Styrofoam for Such a Small Package ... Packs of Ravenous Wolves"

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Dear Randall,

And on the eighth day--which arrived in 1886--God instructed the U.S. Supreme Court to confer the legal status of "person" upon the corporation, giving it all the rights enjoyed by individuals. But that left the job of humanizing the corporation only half done. Inspired by His divine intervention, turn-of-the-century capitalists hired advertising agencies and public relations firms to breathe souls into their leviathans.

According to Creating the Corporate Soul, by this week's "Book Club" author, Roland Marchand, putting a human face on the corporation was no simple task because unions and trustbusters had already typecast it as a vile, craven, and murderous beast. But the growth of the popular press gave AT&T, H.J. Heinz, Prudential, U.S. Steel, and all the other megacorporations a venue to counter the negative imagery, and they produced thousands of advertisements portraying their enterprises as folksy next-door neighbors,

or as service organizations more interested in maintaining the public trust and providing stewardship than--perish the thought!--making a profit.

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To augment the message, the corporations started propaganda magazines of their own, like this GM title

or sponsored road shows or world's fair exhibitions that cast them as the bringers of the future (GM again),

or as partners in the war effort (GM once more).

Marchand has done a splendid job at plundering corporate archives to tell the story of How the Corporation Manufactured Its Soul. That's all well and good, but about 100 pages into Marchand's mammoth book I realized two things. 1) There isn't much here to argue with. Don't we already understand that corporations exist to earn profits for their stockholders, and that all the hokum of their ad campaigns is discounted by the audience? And, 2) weighing in at 470 pages, Creating the Corporate Soul is a lot of styrofoam for such a small package. What do you think?

Speaking of corporate images, did you see the Outpost.com commercial during the Lions-Steelers game on Thanksgiving? An Outpost.com spokesman comes on to explain the strategy that his company has devised to make consumers remember the Outpost.com URL. A college marching band appears on a football field to spell out "Outpost.com," and then, to make sure the viewers remember it, the spokesman declares that "we're going to unleash a pack of wild wolves on the band." They do, and the wolves blitz the band in a feeding frenzy. The commercial was like something out of Michael "Mr. Mike" O'Donoghue in the early days of Saturday Night Live. What does Outpost.com make or sell? I couldn't tell you, but the pairing of an emotion (high hilarity) with a commercial message has seared the URL into my brain. I think I'll go visit Outpost.com right now.

Regards,
Jack

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Randall Rothenberg is New York editor of
Wired magazineand the author of Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story. Jack Shafer is Slate's deputy editor. This week they discuss Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business, by Roland Marchand (University of California Press; 470 pages; $39.95).