Barton, who died at age 80 in 1967, is all but forgotten today, reduced to an initial on the lintel of the multinational company he helped found, BBDO. But a delightful if dense new history of advertising returns to Barton his rightful status as the godfather of the modern corporate image -- the image that placed business in the center of the American way of life. "No one else," writes Roland Marchand in "Creating the Corporate Soul" (University of California Press, 1998), "seemed to imbue the quest for corporate legitimacy, both externally and internally, with quite so much soul."
"Soul" is a word not often associated with big business in the era of Microsoft, but it lies deeply, if repetitively, in the center of so many image advertising campaigns. What, after all, are all those cloying shots of smiling babies, daddies and daughters, moms and baseball games if not a testament to the inner values of this car company, that bank, or the other toothpaste producer?
Marchand, a warm and giving teacher, who died as he was completing his last, masterful history, makes clear today's avalanche of value-laden corporate imagery began with Bruce Barton -- who, unlike so many of his professional descendants, believed deeply in the message he was conveying.
Barton had a regard for business that crossed the border from respect to reverence. The son of a minister, Barton believed advertising tantamount to religion, a tenet he expressed in his 1927 address, "Creed of an Advertising Man." "I am in advertising," he said, "because I believe in business, and advertising is the voice of business; I believe that in the larger development of business and the gradual evolution of its ideals lies the best hope of the world."
Two years earlier, he'd landed on the best-seller lists with an even more evocative expression of the same doctrine, "The Man Nobody Knows." In the book, he posited that Jesus was the world's first -- and greatest -- advertising man, who "picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world."
In this cynical age, such testimony can seem nothing less than quaint. But Barton wasn't aiming his message necessarily at the broad, faceless public. He understood the first target of advertising lay inside the walls of the client company. Barton recognized the primary challenge for any organization was to instill and maintain faith in the various constituencies within the group. No company can win new converts, he seemed to say, if its own people weren't true believers.
So advertising had to locate the "soul" of a company and reflect it back to those insiders. "I like to think of advertising as something big, something splendid, something which goes deep down into an institution and gets hold of the soul of it," Barton wrote in a 1923 speech delivered by General Motors President Pierre DuPont. "Institutions have souls, just as men and nations have souls."
GM profited enormously from Barton's wisdom. Cobbled together from disparate automobile and parts manufacturers, the company needed a singular spirit to allow these former competitors to work together. It got that religion from Barton's campaign, which positioned GM as a "famous family" of autos. While the overt audience was consumers, the fact that the ads hung prominently in dealerships and on factory floors made clear its actual patrons were the company's own managers.
The importance of culture and image to the corporation is now a commonplace -- celebrated by Madison Avenue, scrutinized by Wall Street, deified by Tom Peters, analyzed by McKinsey. But it began with Bruce Barton. "In Barton's mind," Roland Marchand eulogizes, "no goal surpassed the internal mission -- that of forging a corporate consciousness." Amen.