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The Corporation Nobody Knew: Bruce Barton, Alfred Sloan, and the Founding of the General Motors “Family”

  • Roland Marchand (a1)

Abstract

When Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., assumed the presidency of General Motors, the corporation was little known beyond Wall Street, which recognized GM simply as the holding company that controlled several nearly autonomous automakers and their subsidiaries. The following article describes how Sloan used the imagination and advertising talent of Bruce Barton to create a corporate image for GM, not only in the mind of the public, but among GM's own headquarters staff and division executives as well. Through the metaphor of the corporate “family,” Sloan and Barton finessed a potential public relations liability—the corporation's immense size—into an image of efficient cooperation and internal cohesion.

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1 “A Famous Family,” booklet [1923], Public Relations Department, Archives, General Motors Corporation, Detroit [hereafter cited as PR, GM]; Verne Burnett to Charles F. Kettering, 2 May 1924, Advertising, 1923 file, Charles F. Kettering Papers, General Motors Institute Alumni Foundation's Collection of Industrial History, Flint, Mich, [hereafter cited as GMI]; Literary Digest, 21 June 1924, 55; 20 Sept. 1924, 78; The Saturday Evening Post, 18 Aug. 1923, 88–89; 26 Feb. 1924, 94–95; 12 April 1924, 118–19; Swayne, Alfred H., “Making Friends for the Family”, Judicious Advertising 22 (Jan. 1924); 2526.

2 For statistics on GM work force, assets, and components, see John Moody, Moody's Analysis of Investments and Security Rating Books, part II, Industrial Investments, 1921, 1530, and U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Report on the Motor Vehicle Industry (Washington, D.C., 1939), 546.

3 Barton, Bruce, The Man Nobody Knows (Indianapolis, Ind., 1925); Hackett, Alice Payne and Burke, James Henry, 80 Years of Best Sellers (New York, 1977), 101; Advertising Age, 7 July 1934, 1; Rorty, James, Our Master's Voice (New York, 1934), 313, 318–20.

4 McCraw, Thomas K. and Reinhardt, Forest, “Losing to Win: U.S. Steel's Pricing, Investment Decisions, and Market Share, 1901–1938”, Journal of Economic History 49 (Sept. 1989): 593, 611, 618–19.

5 Sloan, Alfred P. Jr, My Years with General Motors (Garden City, N. Y., 1964), 27; Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., to Charles F. Kettering, 12 April 1924, Advertising, 1924 file, Kettering Papers, GMI; Swayne, “Making Friends for the Family,” 25.

6 Chandler, Alfred D. Jr, and Salsbury, Stephen, Pierre S. du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation (New York, 1971), 473, 512, 597; Brown, Donaldson, Some Reminiscences of an Industrialist (Easton, N.J., 1977), xi; Printers' Ink, 13 Dec. 1923, 17; Sloan, My Years with General Motors, 27; Pound, Arthur, The Turning Wheel: The Story of General Motors Through Twenty-Five Years, 1908–1933 (Garden City, NY., 1934), 197.

7 I have derived the figures on production percentages from Seltzer, Lawrence H., A Financial History of the American Automobile Industry (Boston, Mass., 1928), 84, 135. See also Cray, Ed, Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times (New York, 1980), 208, and Chandler, Alfred D. Jr, Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), 143.

8 Cray, Chrome Colossus, 189–90; Chandler and Salsbury, Pierre du Pont, 524–25, 535; Chandler, Strategy and Structure, 154; Galambos, Louis and Pratt, Joseph, The Rise of the Corporate Commonwealth: U.S. Business and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1988), 73; Printers' Ink, 29 Sept. 1921, 3, 6. On the issue of centralization, see also Burk, Robert F., The Corporate State and the Broker State: The Du Ponts and American Politics, 1925–1940 (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 1011.

9 Chandler, Strategy and Structure, 155; Chandler and Salsbury, Pierre du Pont, 547; Kuhn, Arthur J., GM Passes Ford, 1918–1938: Designing the General Motors Performance-Control System (University Park, Pa., 1986), 21, 127; Brown, Some Reminiscences, 53; Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., to A. H. Swayne, 11 Feb. 1924, Documents II folder, case 1, General Motors Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School [hereafter cited as GM, HBS]. It may have taken several months for Sloan to gain approval of the General Purchasing Committee proposal. See Sloan to G. B. McCann, 29 Nov. 1922, A. P. Sloan, Jr., 1922 file, Kettering Papers, GMI.

10 Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., “Memo on Institutional Advertising,” 19 Sept. 1922, Separate Reports, 1920–1924 folder, case 1, GM, HBS.

11 Sloan, “Memo on Institutional Advertising.”

12 Sloan, My Years with General Motors, 105.

13 Kuhn, GM Passes Ford, 132; BDO, “Interdepartmental Memo.,” no. 106 [1923], Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn (BBDO) Archives, New York City.

14 Ed Roberts, “BBDO Short History,” typescript, 3, and “General Motors,” Untitled Binder on Status of BDO Accounts in 1928, 13, BBDO Archives; “The Man Everybody Knew,” typescript for press release, July 1967, Bruce Barton Biographical File, BBDO Archives; Sloan, My Years with General Motors, 104. I have not been able to discover any large body of Barton's correspondence with GM.

15 “Meeting of General Motors House Organ Editors,” 8 Feb. 1923 (attached to H. B. Weaver to C. F. Kettering, 2 March 1923), General Motors, Detroit, 1923 file, Kettering Papers, GMI; “General Motors,” Client's Binder II [1928], 13, BBDO Archives. On Barton's role at GE, see, for example, Bruce Barton to Gerard Swope, 27 Sept., 23 Dec. 1922, 4 Oct. 1923; Swope to Barton, 14 Nov. 1922, folder 201.2, Gerard Swope files, General Electric Archives, Schenectady, N.Y. On the scope of the GE campaign, see Nye, David E., Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 268, 274.

16 Harford Powell, “As You Were—III,” Advertising and Selling, 29 Aug. 1935, 36; White, Gordon Eugene, “John Caples and His Contributions to Advertising and Communications Research” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, 1971), 6970; Rorty, Our Master's Voice, 321.

17 Lears, T. J. Jackson, “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880–1930,” in The Culture of Consumption, ed. Fox, Richard Wightman and Lears, T. J. Jackson (New York, 1983), 30, 3437.

18 William Alfred Corey to Bruce Barton, 11 Nov. 1917, Harvey S. Lamp to Barton, 27 Nov. 1917, M. E. Voorhies to Barton, 28 Nov. 1917, box 88, Bruce Barton Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisc.; Every Week, 2 Feb. 1918, 19; 27 April 1918, 22; 22 June 1918, 3; Memo, unsigned [R. F. Davis] to Gerard Swope,, 28 July 1922; F. R. Gale to Swope, 9 Aug. 1922, folder 201.2, Swope files, GE Archives.

19 United War Work Campaign, “Memorandum of Agreement between the Cooperating Organizations, Adopted September 4, 1918”; “Letter of President Wilson, September 3, 1918,” box 144, and Bruce Barton to M. E. Carr, 7 Oct. 1918, box 70, all Barton Papers; Every Week, 26 Nov. 1917, 2.

20 Bruce Barton, “I Am New York and This Is My Creed” [pamphlet, n.d.], and M. McLeod to Hugh H. Gray, 20 June 1934, Bankers Trust file, box 3, Barton Papers. In the late 1920s, Barton recycled the “Creed” in an ad for the Bankers Trust Company.

21 “BBDO History (labeled ‘return to Gouge’),” c. 1924, typescript, 11, BBDO History folder, BBDO Archives; Ernst, Eldon R., Moment of Truth for Protestant America: Interchurch Campaigns Following World War I (Missoula, Mont., 1974), 9698.

22 Ernst, Moment of Truth, 96–97, 106; The Nation, 5 June 1920, 746; The Saturday Evening Post, 10 April 1920, 130–31.

23 Pierre du Pont to stockholders, 1 Feb. 1923, in brochure on GM institutional advertising in General Motors Advertising, 1923 file, Kettering Papers, GMI.

24 “General Motors,” Untitled Binder on Status of BDO Accounts in 1928, 13, BDO Archives; A. P. Sloan, Jr., to Charles Kettering, 8 Nov. 1922, A. P. Sloan, Jr., 1922 file, and 12 April 1924, Advertising, 1924 file, Kettering Papers, GMI. On Sloan's style, see also Davis, Donald Finlay, Conspicuous Production: Automobiles and Elites in Detroit, 1898–1933 (Philadelphia, Pa., 1988), 150. Simultaneous with the inauguration of the institutional advertising campaign, a proposal for a General Motors House Organ was abandoned and the corporation offered simply to supply news items to the editors of the various division publications to “use … in your own house organs to whatever extent you and your management may determine.” This may have represented another step to assuage any feelings of loss of autonomy on the part of the operating divisions. “Meeting of General Motors House Organ Editors,” 8 Feb. 1923.

25 “Meeting of General Motors House Organ Editors,” 8 Feb. 1923, 4; Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, First Five Years: Harvard Advertising Awards, 1924–1928 (New York, 1930), 76; “The Following articles…” (mimeo, n.d.), and C. F. Kettering to H. G. Weaver, 5 Jan., 14 Feb. 1923, General Motors, Detroit, 1923 file; advertising proofs, General Motors Advertising file, 1923; Kettering to Verne Burnett, 11 April 1924, Burnett to Kettering, 2 May 1924, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., to Kettering, 12 April 1924, Advertising file, 1924, Kettering Papers, GMI.

26 Charles F. Kettering to Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., 29 June 1923; Sloan to Kettering, 29 June, 3 July, 24 Aug., 1 Dec. 1923, A. P. Sloan, Jr., file and A. P. Sloan, Latest Correspondence file, 1923, Kettering Papers, GMI.

27 Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., to A. H. Swayne, 11 Feb. 1924, Documents II folder, case 1, GM, HBS; Chandler, Strategy and Structure, 156; Chandler and Salsbury, Pierre du Pont, 547–48; Kuhn, GM Passes Ford, 35–43, 104, 109, 127; Tedlow, Richard S., New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America (New York, 1990), 167; Sloan to Charles F. Kettering, 3 July, 24 Aug., 1 Dec. 1923, General Motors, Detroit, 1923 file, Kettering Papers, GMI.

28 Sloan to Charles F. Kettering, 3 July, 24 Aug., 1 Dec. 1923, H. G. Weaver to Kettering, 14 Dec. 1922, General Motors, Detroit, 1923 file, Kettering Papers, GMI.

29 Harvard Business School, “General Motors Corporation Institutional Advertising” (Adv. 759), 3, pamphlet file A–167, PR, GM.

30 Barton, Durstine, and Osborn, “Report on General Motors Campaign for Harvard Awards,” 3, Awards File, BBDO Archives [hereafter cited as BDO, “General Motors"].

31 Chandler and Salsbury, Pierre du Pont, 517; BDO, “General Motors,” 8–10.

32 BDO, “General Motors,” 8–10; Harvard Business School, First Five Years, 75.

33 “The Man Everybody Knows,” Bruce Barton Biographical File, BBDO Archives; Bruce Barton to C. E. Patterson, 22 July 1930, folder 201.2, Swope files, GE Archives; Davis, Conspicuous Production, 3–4, 98, 146, 151, 156, 158.

34 “A Famous Family” [pamphlet] and “Institutional Advertising” [pamphlet], Institutional Advertising files, PR, GM.

35 Ibid.; BDO, “General Motors,” 11, 17, 19; Harvard Business School, First Five Years, 75.

36 Swayne, “Making Friends for the Family,” 28; Cray, Chrome Colossus, 320; Chandler and Salsbury, Pierre du Pont, 499.

37 BDO, “General Motors,” 14–15; Literary Digest, 14 May 1924, 68; American Magazine 98 (Oct. 1924): 90.

38 Literary Digest, 22 May 1926, 56; 26 June 1926, 53; Press Release, 5 Feb. 1924, PR, GM.

39 Swayne, “Making Friends for the Family,” 27; BDO, “General Motors,” 14, 19. On the cultural status of the automobile, see Flink, James J., The Car Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1975).

40 BDO, “General Motors,” 6; Harvard Business School, First Five Years, Alfred Swayne to Charles Kettering, 19 May 1924, Advertising, 1924 file, Kettering Papers, GMI; Seltzer, A Financial History, 65.

41 Swayne, “Making Friends for the Family,” 27; Advertising Case 521 (General Motors), 10, reel 12, Harvard Business School Archives; BDO, “General Motors,” 6–7.

42 Alfred H. Swayne to C. F. Kettering, 19 May 1924, Advertising, 1924 file, Kettering Papers, GMI; Swayne, “Making Friends,” 27; General Motors World 3 (March 1924): 1; Bruce Barton, “Speech at University of Buffalo, October 17, 1929,” typescript, box 145, Barton Papers; Printers' Ink, 14 May 1925, 106.

43 Bruce Barton to Charles F. Kettering, 13 Jan. 1923; Alfred Swayne to Kettering, 29 May 1923; Kettering to Swayne, 29 May 1923; Lockwood Barr to C. W. Adams, 17 Jan. 1923; Walter C. Boynton to C. W. Adams, 17 Jan. 1923, Swayne, Boynton and General Motors, N.Y. files, 1923, Kettering Papers, GMI; R. K. Evans, “Oral Interview,” GMI Alumni Foundation Collection of Industrial History, Flint, Mich.

44 Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization,” 33; Bruce Barton to Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., 1 July 1925, enclosure to Barton to Gerard Swope, 17 Aug. 1925, folder 201.2, Swope files, GE Archives.

45 BDO, “General Motors,” 16; Harvard Business School, First Five Years; Verne Burnett to Charles Kettering, 2 May 1924, Advertising, 1924 file, and “The following article…” (mimeo, n.d.), General Motors, Detroit, 1923 folder, “Minutes of General Motors Personnel Association, Semi-Annual Meeting, September 20, 1923,” Bulletins, 1923 file, Kettering Papers, GMI.

46 “Meeting of General Motors House Organ Editors,” 8 Feb. 1923; and “Minutes of General Motors Personnel Association, Semi-Annual Meeting, September 20, 1923”; The Saturday Evening Post, 12 July 1924, 104–5.

47 BDO, “General Motors,” 8, 14, 16; “Meeting of the General Motors House Organ Editors,” 8 Feb. 1923, 5; Bruce Barton to C. W. Adams, 31 Jan. 1923, General Motors, N.Y., 1923 file, Kettering Papers, GMI.

48 “Meeting of General Motors House Organ Editors,” 8 Feb. 1923, 4–5; “General Motors Institutional Advertising Campaign” [brochure], Advertising, 1923 file; “May institutional ad,” enclosure from Verne Burnett to Charles Kettering, 2 May 1924, and Alfred Swayne to Kettering, 19 May 1924, Advertising, 1924 file; “Osborn Report on Dealers,” enclosure in Alfred Swayne to Charles Kettering, 19 May 1924, Advertising, 1924 file, Kettering Papers, GMI.

49 The calculations of BDO and General Motors on institutional campaign expenditures do not agree. A 1928 BDO memorandum declared that the budget for the first year had been $500,000 and that by 1927–28 it had stabilized at $1 million. A 1950s retrospective summary by General Motors, in contrast, set the actual expenditures for 1923 and 1924 in the $300–360,000 range and for 1925 and 1926 at approximately $648,000 and $622,000, respectively. Although total advertising appropriations for all divisions of the corporation for the 1923–28 period are not available, it appears that expenditures on the institutional campaigns amounted to at least 10 percent of the total advertising budget for these years and perhaps, at times, as much as 20 percent. Harvard Business School, “General Motors Corporation Institutional Advertising” (Adv. 759), 3, pamphlet file A–167, PR, GM; “Minutes of Executive Committee.” 29 June, 20 Oct. 1922, case 2 (Exec. Committee up to 1925), GM, HBS; BDO, “General Motors Corporation,” Clients Binder [1928], BBDO Archives.

50 Seltzer, A Financial History, 220; Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., to A. H. Swayne, 11 Feb. 1924, Documents II folder, case 1, GM, HBS; Cray, Chrome Colossus, 216.

51 The Saturday Evening Post, 24 Oct. 1925, 90; 7 Nov. 1925, 125; Printers' Ink, 19 Aug. 1926, 166; 9 Dec. 1926, 189–90; 2 June 1927, 33.

52 The figures on total production of household mechanical refrigerators and of Frigidaire orders and production are taken from a confidential compilation in the Frigidaire archives that relies on statistics from Refrigeration and Air Conditioning News, 6 Jan. 1937, and from the Frigidaire Market Research and Order Departments. A table showing more extended trends appears in Tedlow, New and Improved, 313. There are large, unexplained discrepancies between the figures from the two Frigidaire departments from 1926 through 1928, but the massive increase in production and market share is clear in any case. I am indebted to Richard Tedlow for calling this document to my attention. See Frigidaire Market Research Department, “Mechanical Refrigerator Units” (9 March 1949), 79–10.4–352, box 43, Frigidaire Papers, GMI Alumni Foundation Collection of Industrial History, Flint, Mich.

53 Good Housekeeping 84 (March 1927): 113; Printed Salesmanship 49 (July 1927): 427; Literary Digest, 16 Oct. 1926, 63.

54 The Saturday Evening Post, 16 July 1927, 94–95; 28 July 1928, 82–83; Printers' Ink, 10 Nov. 1927, 86–87.

55 Lest we begin to assume that the creation of an impressive corporate image would assure the success of all new products marketed under the aegis of a giant corporation, it is well to recall that both General Motors and General Electric expanded their lines at the beginning of the 1930s to produce and market radios. Neither gained immediate success or a significant long-term market share. General Motors announced triumphantly the advent of “a radio worthy of the name—General Motors” and reminded newspaper readers that the corporation had “brought to radio a priceless reputation.” One ad was illustrated with a sculptor carving the GM initials into marble as a symbol of the noble legacy passed on to the new product. General Electric rivaled GM in introductory fanfare. “Out of the House of Magic,” it proclaimed, “has come a new product on which General Electric proudly places ‘The Initials of a Friend.’” But the unimpressive results of both of these campaigns to bring the prestige of the corporation to bear in a new merchandising foray should remind us not to overestimate the impact of corporate imagery on new product promotion. As Richard Tedlow's account of “scope economies” in distribution in the marketing of GE refrigerators reminds us, the power of the corporate image was only one element among many in the “merchandising mix.” Los Angeles Times, 3 Aug. 1930, 11; The Saturday Evening Post, 6 Sept. 1930, 63; 22 Nov. 1930, 34–35; Tedlow, New and Improved, 311–13.

56 Martin P. Rice to Owen D. Young, 16 Aug. 1921; Rice to Gerard Swope, 9 June 1922; Thomas Logan to Swope, 20 July 1922; W. O. Batchelder to H. L. Monroe, 9 Aug. 1922; Bruce Barton to F. R. Gale, 20 Oct. 1922; Bruce Barton, “A Memo for Mr. Swope” (enclosure in Barton to Swope, 27 Sept. 1922), folder 201.2, Swope files; Hubert M. Snider, “GE Advertising: 30 Minutes of the First 75 Years” (typescript, 15 Sept. 1977), 8, General Electric Archives, Fairfield.

57 Bruce Barton to R. H. Gale, 30 Oct. 1933; Barton to Gerard Swope, 4 Oct., 23 Nov. 1923, 19 Nov. 1925; Swope to H. L. Monroe, 26 Nov. 1923; G. P. Baldwin to Swope, 29 July 1922; Barton, “A Memo for Mr. Swope,” folder 201.2, Swope files; General Electric Company, General Electric Publicity, 1924, 9; Schenectady Works News, 15 June 1923, 16, 6 July 1923, 4th cover, 20 July 1923, 16; “General Electric,” 13–14, Awards file, BBDO Archives; “General Electric,” 2, 4, Binder on Status of Accounts, 1928, BBDO Archives. Emphasis in the final quote is mine.

58 Bruce Barton to Gerard Swope, 26 May 1927; Bruce Barton to C. E. Patterson, 22 July 1930, folder 201.2, Swope files; Chicago Tribune, 6 Jan. 1928, 9, 11 Jan. 1928, 13.

59 Alex Osborn to George S. Anderson, 27 Sept. 1926, box 79, and Bruce Barton to Mr. McKinlay, 15 Feb. 1929, box 77, Barton Papers; Advertising Case 521 (General Motors), 19–20, reel 12, Harvard Business School Archives.

60 “Advertising, Ford—1924—Institutional,” Acc. 19, Ford Motor Company Archives, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Mich.; The Saturday Evening Post, 28 June 1924, 52–53; 12 July 1924, 88–89; 26 July 1924, 52–53; Wetmore Hodges to Edsel Ford, 12 April 1924, Acc. 572, box 10, Ford Archives.

61 Harvard Business School, “General Motors Corporation Institutional Advertising” (Adv. 759), 25, pamphlet file A–167, PR, GM; Space and Time, 12 April 1939, n.p., in Durstine file, box 18, Barton Papers.

62 National Electric Light Association, Proceedings of the 49th Convention, 1926, 44; Printers' Ink, 31 March 1927, 77.

63 Chandler and Salsbury, Pierre du Pont, 517; Josephine Young Case and Everett Needham Case, Owen D. Young and American Enterprise: A Biography (Boston, Mass., 1982), 367.

64 Bruce Barton to Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., 1 July 1925, folder 201.2, Swope files.

65 Galambos, Louis P. and Spence, Barbara Barrow, The Public Image of Big Business in America, 1880–1940: A Quantitative Study in Social Change (Baltimore, Md., 1975), 221.

66 BBDO, “General Motors,” Account Status Binder, Sept. 1928, Clients folder, BBDO Archives; Bruce Barton to C. E. Patterson, 22 July 1930, folder 201.2, Swope files; Barton to Lammot du Pont, 18 May 1935, Acc. 1813, box 20, E. I. Du Pont de Nemours Company Archives, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Del.

67 “The Man Everybody Knew,” typescript for press release, 10 July 1967, Bruce Barton Biographical File, BBDO Archives.

68 Spitzer, Leo, A Method for Interpreting Literature (Northampton, Mass., 1949), 117–21.

69 General Motors certainly did not permanently abandon even this nuance of the family metaphor. In the late 1930s, especially with the inauguration of the corporate house organ, GM Folks, the company again traded heavily on family and neighbors imagery. See, for instance, GM Folks 1 (May 1938): n.p.; (Oct. 1938): second cover; Don Hogate to Paul W. Garrett, 16 March 1938; Paul Garrett, “Industry's No. 1 Problem Defined, ' 9 Feb. 1939; “Neighbor and Customer in Every Community,” brochure, n.d. [1938], Public Relations Archives, General Motors.

70 Cohen, Lizabeth, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York, 1990), 206, 208, 313–19, 364.

71 Bruce Barton to C. E. Patterson, 22 July 1930, folder 201.2, Swope files; BBDO, “National Campaign, General Motors,” 4, Awards files, BBDO Archives; General Motors World 3 (March 1924); 1.

72 Marchand, Roland, “The Fitful Career of Advocacy Advertising,” California Management Review 24 (Winter 1987): 128–34, 141–42.

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The Corporation Nobody Knew: Bruce Barton, Alfred Sloan, and the Founding of the General Motors “Family”

  • Roland Marchand (a1)

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