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Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business

Author(s):Marchand, Roland
Reviewer(s):Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth

Published by H-Business and EH.Net (January, 1999)

Roland Marchand. Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations

and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business. Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1998. xi + 461 pp. Acknowledgments, illustrations, notes and

index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-520-08719-4.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, West Virginia

University

On January 11, 1999 Time Magazine devoted a special edition to the

future of medicine. This issue featured a series of striking full and double

page advertisements sponsored by the pharmaceutical firm, Pfizer. While some

of the company’s 39 pages of advertising promoted Pfizer’s products, ma ny of

the others were designed to create a favorable public image of the firm.

Through this institutional advertising, readers learned about Pfizer’s history,

its concern for women’s health, its innovative research programs and its

longstanding commitment

to service. Pfizer presented itself as a friend of the family and as an

institution dedicated to improving the life of each American. In each

institutional ad, the firm proclaimed that life not profits “is our life’s

work.” Having established its concern for the public, Pfizer shifted from

image-shaping institutional advertising to advocacy advertising, using one of

the issues’ back pages to editorialize against government-led reform of the

healthcare system. Only the free market, CEO William Steere

sermonized, could provide quality healthcare.

Pfizer’s efforts to associate its firm with technological progress and service

and its attack on government regulation have deep historical roots.

Roland Marchand’s study of the creation of the corporate image uncovers the

origins of many of the themes and images still used today by corporations like

Pfizer in their institutional and advocacy advertising campaigns. It is a

major contribution to the growing literature on the history of public

relations, consumer culture, and advertising. This meticulously researched

work draws upon the records of major corporations, advertising agencies and

public relations counselors to analyze the strategies big business used to

attain legitimacy by creating a favorable public image during the first half

of the twentieth century. It combines a survey of the activities of a broad

cross section of firms with in-depth case studies of major companies such as

AT&T, the Pennsylvania Railroad, General Motors, General Electric, Du Pont and

Metropolitan Life Insurance.

In the early twentieth century, large

corporations faced a “crisis of

legitimacy” (p. 3). Appalled at the growing power and corruption associated

with newly emergent big businesses and by increasing industrial strife,

elements of the public began calling for greater state regulation. Some even

demanded the dismantling of the “soulless” giants who seemed to endanger

democracy and the traditional American way of life. This threat to corporate

freedom helped give birth to a host of public relations initiatives, ranging

from welfare capitalism and institutional advertising,

to factory tours and elaborate exhibits at the great world’s fairs, all

designed to create a positive image of the corporation. Like Andrea To ne,

The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive

America, Cornell University Press, 1997), Marchand argues that welfare

capitalism, which provided services such as medical care, recreation,

pensions, and housing, was more than just a mechanism to undercut unionism and

promote worker productivity. By publicly demonstrating compassion for

employees and presenting the human face of American capitalism, welfare

programs served as a “safeguard against perceptions of soullessness” (p.1 5).

Welfarism also helped address corporate concern over the growing distance

between management and the rank and file, which Marchand labels

“the Lament.” The employee magazine, radio broadcasts, company films and

employee representation reunited “the family at one great dining table” (p.

113).

Much of the book is devoted to analyzing the evolution of institutional

advertising. Marchand used corporate records to reveal companies’ multiple

goals and multiple audiences. Metropolitan Life’s 1922 institutional

campaign, for instance, was aimed at both employees and the public. It sought

to shape political opinion, promote employee morale and corporate

consciousness, and develop for the insurance company a reputation for community

service. Similarly, General Motor’s 1920s advertising campaign aspired both to

create public goodwill by portraying GM as an agency of public service and to

stimulate a corporate consciousness among the often hostile divisions of the

firm. Marchand pays close attention to the language and visual imagery of the

ads themselves. This book lavishly reproduced almost two hundred of these

advertisements, both color and black-and-white. While some of the advertising

seems archaic, many of the themes and metaphors that Marchand identified have

become ubiquitous in modern-day institutional advertising. Early ads projected

the corporate image through architecture, using pictures of the factory or

corporate headquarters to symbolize qualities like stability, efficiency, and

security.

More familiar, however, are the AT&T ads from the early part of the century.

A trailblazer in corporate public relations, AT&T advertisements identified the

telephone with economic progress, featured women, sought to humanize the

company, and emphasized

the firm’s commitment to public service.

In the midst of the depression of the thirties, corporations worried less about

their soulless image and more about the future of capitalism.

Competing with the New Deal for public favor, business attempted to se ll

itself and the capitalist system. It looked to new mediums, especially radio

and movies, and reached out to insurgent workers with a common-folk style. New

converts, like Du Pont and U.S. Steel became committed to the mission of

carrying their “corporate message directly to the American

public” (p. 223). Other firms, like General Motors, longtime advocates of

public relations, expanded their image building activities. GM’s striking 1939

World’s Fair exhibit, Futurama, helped convey “the corporation’

s optimism about the capacity of private industry to promote prosperity and

create new jobs,” and suggested the “modernity, benevolence, and

forward-looking social vision of the corporation” (p. 303). World War II saw

yet a further expansion of corporate

public relations as companies connected their images to the war effort and

fought to offset growing wartime regulation of the economy.

In the early part of Creating the Corporate Soul, Marchand offers an

intriguing analysis of the roles of gender and

shifting boundaries in the development of corporate imagery. As he explains,

public relations and welfare capitalism, which were distant from production and

catered to public opinion, were initially viewed as feminine and potentially

subversive.

Gender

considerations shaped the content of ads. Uncomfortable with too

“feminine” an appeal, AT&T’s early institutional advertising shied away from

depicting the social role of the telephone. Welfare capitalism also pushed the

boundaries of conventional business behavior, creating expectations of

stewardship that firms were often hesitant to assume. The themes of gender and

boundaries appear, however, only in the first part of the book. One might have

wished for an extension of this promising analysis through the entire work.

Throughout, Marchand makes realistic appraisals of the corporate image building

campaigns. Many of the corporate assertions were hypocritical,

contradictory and down right false. Firms, for instance, commonly employed the

metaphor of

corporation as family. But, as Marchand observes, “what family would ‘fire’

its children when expediency so dictated?” (p. 107). AT

&T’s depiction of itself as an investment democracy was deceptive.

Similarly, the sit-down strikes made GM’s 1930s portrayals of employees happily

rushing to work hardly credible. Marchand acknowledges that the

“precise effect of institutional advertising campaigns was difficult to

estimate” (p. 201). Companies with political goals at times found the payoff

in favorable

legislation. In the 1930s professional polling services began surveying

popular attitudes toward large firms. They helped provide business the

necessary evidence of the effectiveness of corporate image building. By the

end of World War II, big business

had gained acceptance as a legitimate social institution and corporate

ideology was well on its way to becoming a dominate force in political

discourse.

Roland Marchand died before Creating Corporate Soul was published. It

is an important work and a

beautiful book that will stand as a fitting tribute to his distinguished career

as a historian.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII