The Big Lie – the complete book online - 21 Corporate

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Chapter 21

Singing from the songsheet


In the late 1970s the giant German chemical company Hoechst decided it needed a corporate advertising campaign in Britain. It drew up a list of four London agencies and asked them to make speculative presentations. One agency, a JWT team, produced two campaigns. Its favourite showed how chemistry alleviates the problems of humanity: old age, famine, overpopulation. This would stretch minds, but harsh reality was a high-risk strategy. So the agency hedged its bet by also presenting a second campaign, a commonplace effort reciting the company’s capabilities. More than a dozen Hoechst managers assembled to judge each agency’s ideas, and with Teutonic efficiency, they graded them on a list of twenty-five points. When the results were tabulated, the good news for the JWT team was that their realistic “humanity” campaign was overwhelmingly the first choice, while their alternative had come in third. The bad news, the client explained, was that althoughas people the Hoechst team loved the controversial proposal, as a company they found it too risky. So the account was awarded to a rival agency, which produced a television commercial personifying the various activities of the company, ending with a shot of a group of people dressed in symbolic costumes standing on a surfboard – to represent the plastics division – together with a pig, signifying agricultural chemicals.

In most countries the law recognises a corporation as a “legal person”. It is an entity which has “property rights”. These can create conflicts with the rights of other individuals – humans – who also recognise another kind of law: morality. Everything a board of directors does is justified ultimately by the claim that it is acting to defend or increase value for its shareholders, the directors being merely responsible stewards. Leaving aside the contradiction that the dominant shareholders are almost invariably financial institutions and therefore “legal persons” too, and ignoring also the moral question as to whether their enhancement should be the over-riding objective (it is increasingly recognised that companies have other responsibilities – to their managers and workers, to the communities in which they operate, to the environment), it is in any case a Big Lie. Public companies are run for the benefit of the people who run them – the top managers. In extreme cases, they are run like robber baronies. In the era of the leveraged buy-outs of the 1980s there were plenty of these, the rape of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, described in Barbarians at the Gate1 being the most notorious. Managers of public companies are constrained in the pursuit of their personal objectives only by considerations which may diminish the public valuation of the company, and hence arouse the shareholders to replace them.

Successful companies outlive the people who start them, yet, to paraphrase a durable 1980s European advertising campaign for Citicorp Venture Capital, anyone would rather be an owner than a manager. Daniel Bell describes the origin of the manager’s dilemma in his book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism2 :


The first deep, internal structural change in capitalism was the divorce of family and property from managerial power and the loss of continuity through the chain of elites. Economic power today lies in institutions whose chiefs cannot pass along their power to their heirs and who, increasingly – since property is not private (but corporate), and technical skill, not property, is the basis of managerial positions – no longer have the traditional natural rights, justifications and legiti-macy in the exercise of that power and feel it keenly.


Typically a corporation perpetuates the traditions of a family enterprise by creating its own Weltanschauung to bond family members, its employees, with a creed of shared values, from profit maximisation to expressions of social concern. Compliance is encouraged by elaborate rituals ranging from salesmen’s competitions to dress-down Fridays. As every church has a “mission”, so now does every business. The belief system is hallowed in a “mission statement”, an earnest compilation of anodyne, irreproachable, and immeasurable Americanised “motherhood and apple pie” aspirations such as “quality”, “dedication”, “optimisation”, and “excellence”. Its antecedents are the political party speech and the sermon. The advertising agency is charged with the Alice in Wonderland task of encapsulating this pious pap in a short, distinctive, memorable, and impactful slogan. The result, for major multinational companies, is almost inevitably vacuous: “Your world of financial service”, “For the journey ahead”, “No one protects more”. When commercial realities confound these ideals, the corporations speak their own language of evasion. Depriving someone of his or her livelihood is “right-sizing”, dismembering companies is “unlocking shareholder value”.

Like a religious cult, the corporation creates its own reality which its members must avow to an alien and sometimes hostile real world. To external audiences, customers, suppliers, governments and media, corporations have always sought to express an image of solidity, respectability, and, increasingly, social concern. American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) virtually invented the art of corporate public relations when it began to track public attitudes towards the company in the 1920s. With that came the recognition that the sale of products could be enhanced by selling the company which made them, and so began the great flood of “corporate communications” – brochures, informational films, press advertisements, and eventually television commercials – designed to provide the “legal person” with widespread recognition and accepted status.

In the early 1970s the great mass of UK television viewers was mystified when a commercial extolling an unfamiliar engineering company called Glynwed appeared on its screens. Few would have worked out that it was an eleventh-hour attempt by the company to rally popular support, and boost its share value in a corporate takeover battle. It was not until then that major companies in the UK began to understand that, to many of their “target publics”, not least the City, they too were brands, which could add value through advertising. To the delight of time and space salesmen, companies such as Lyons Bakeries began to use popular media as a weapon of corporate defence against hostile bids. Such campaigns were hasty and forced initiatives, and though rarely too little, almost invariably too late. The approach was simplistic and company-oriented – “we need to explain to people what we do” – and the result usually was the formula “parade of products” presentation. A mid-1970s commercial for Dunlop twisted the formula slightly to show what the world would be like without Dunlop’s range of products. It raised eyebrows and earned creative acclaim by including a shot of a woman on a tennis court who lost her skirt; Dunlop nevertheless was shortly afterwards forced into a disastrous corporate merger.

The City boom and the cycle of mergers of the 1980s brought a new appreciation of the value of well-known brands. Companies were urged to assert corporate ownership of their individual brands as a tool to drive up the company’s share price. However, companies with diversified product portfolios find it difficult to synchronise distinctive brand positionings with the overall corporate image. Allied Lyons, the bakery group, a likely takeover target, slapped its corporate logo on everything it advertised, appropriately enough in a homely Lyons cake commercial, but awkwardly in the case of a sardonic pitch for Castlemaine XXXX aimed at lager louts. In the public mind both Procter & Gamble and Lever Brothers are identified with heavily advertised soap products, but this is hardly representative of the vast scope of their commercial activities. The two companies have different corporate branding policies: Lever Brothers, looking for a cross-product rub-off, does put the corporate logo on its washing powders; Procter & Gamble, taking the view that its brands such as Ariel, Daz, and Bold are in direct competition, does not. When the Swiss company Nestlé bought Rowntree, it acquired the UK’s leading confectionery brand, Kit-Kat. A sure way to anglicise the Continental company was to apply its logo prominently to this household name. However, it was felt less appropriate to After Eight, which has always cultivated an association with upper-class “Englishness”, and the parent company therefore has only a token presence on the packaging of that brand. Johnson & Johnson similarly restricts its endorsement to those baby and family products which reinforce its cosy, hygienic image, and thus escaped fall-out from a disaster created by the damaging side-effects of one of its pharmaceutical brands, Tylenol, in the US. Reckitt & Colman sensibly did not attempt to gain synergy from the marketing of liquids as disparate as Veuve du Vernay, Brasso, and Dettol.

In theory the brand, too, can benefit reciprocally from identification with a respected company. Thus, while cashing in on the friendly domestic image established for Dulux paint by years of advertising characterised by an endearing sheepdog, ICI lends the technical authority of a giant international chemical company to the brand. But huge, amorphous reputations like this are no substitute for pin-sharp brand marketing and presentation; in the DIY chemical filling and fixing field, where its name had obvious strengths, ICI signally failed in the late 1980s with a range designed to break the stranglehold of Polycell, a relative pipsqueak.

Most corporate communications fail to engage because instead of engaging a consumer need the companies are talking about themselves. Corporate appeals are often much clumsier than advertising for consumer products, and about as convincing as fairy tales. One of the obstacles is that “creatives” have little experience of business and how it works, and, digging into their usual bag of consumer-oriented tricks, produce an irrelevant oversimplification. So the services of international accountant Arthur Andersen were presented to senior executives of major companies in a fifteen-second television commercial by transmuting a snail into a frog. Primarily, though, the client is to blame. It is notoriously difficult to gain client approval for any piece of corporate communications, even a brochure which few people will read, because the task compels top management, often for the first time, to consider what its company is really about. This navel-examining exercise brings to the surface lurking divisions and disagreements which are suppressed in the day-to-day running of the business. Because they derive their personal identity from the corporate culture in which they dwell, executives are much more twitchy about such pronouncements than they are about product advertising. To define a company defines the businessmen who make it their life; corporate advertising touches the amour propre of the key executives themselves. As it brings the internal culture into confrontation with the real world, the effect of straining to produce a corporate description can be as devastating and divisive as introducing a firm of management consultants to trawl through operating procedures. The resulting piece of communication is often a stilted defence mechanism, invoking conventions as phoney as those of the archaic “business letter”. It’s a compromise which none of the managers finds offensive, and none of the intended target audience finds of interest – “a pig on a surfboard”.

An advertising agency corporate presentation once included a chart that described the opportunity awaiting the client to become a world leader by playing upon “the rarest ingredient in advertising . . . Truth”. Truth is rare because corporate mythology is a hothouse plant which shrivels in the chill air of reality. In 1986, shortly after the world’s worst industrial disaster, the Union Carbide gas leak at Bhopal which killed an estimated 5,000 people and disabled tens of thousands, the Chemical Industry Association in the UK commissioned a corporate film designed to allay fears about chemical hazards. The producers persuaded the client that rather than the usual bluster about progress, a frank audience discussion voicing both sides of the arguments about controversial issues would show that the industry was concerned and listening. The film was made, but never shown, because the industry refused to admit that issues such as the greenhouse effect might be a reality.

Viewed from the perspective of the world the rest of us inhabit, much corporate advertising is incompetent, irrelevant, or insulting. It cannot reflect well on the quality of the management which sponsors it. Companies eventually realised that if functional distinctions were less important than the brand values attached to a product, so too was it advisable not just to communicate what a company does, but to endow the “legal person” with appealing emotional characteristics. Today most corporations aspire to project benign personalities. How would you describe a person who presented himself as the following firms do?

A 3M newspaper campaign picturing everyday objects with the claim, “You can hardly go through a single day without touching something a 3M abrasive hasn’t touched first”. Self-absorbed?

A 1990s press advertisement showing a skyscape with a cloud shaped vaguely like a winged aeroplane. It is the Lufthansa logo and the copy burbles: “Of course we’re glad 28 million of you have chosen to fly with us this year. It must mean you like us. More than that, you trust us”. Pretentious?

A series of British Telecom press advertisements, each featuring a full-page portrait of a wide-eyed child, for example a small black kid with a football, captioned: “Joe Tear, England manager. On July 19th 2026, he’ll want to videophone his Dad from Canada, to celebrate England’s first World Cup win since 1966”. Customers were urged to regard a serious inconvenience, yet another change of dialling codes following the disruption caused by a previous miscalculation, as a contribution to a better world, because “In the future more people will need more numbers”. Disingenuous?

A 12-year-old child was taken by her parents to watch a corporate video. Her verdict: “The only thing that I found remotely fun was counting how many times they said they were ‘world-class’. It was fifteen – at least once a minute”. Fatuous?

A 1990s newspaper campaign for an association of nuclear power companies calling itself the US Council for Energy Awareness picturing “Foreign Oil” as a nasty cobra rearing to strike, and arguing this competition will “poison America’s economy and our national security”. A scoundrel wrapped in a flag?

The humorist Bill Bryson enjoys skewering the corporate mindset:


. . . an official of Delta Airlines, one Cindy Reeds, is quoted as saying: “The public asked us to eliminate the food”. Excuse me? The customers asked not to be fed? Frankly, I find that a little hard to, uh, swallow. A little further on in the article, Ms Reeds explains the airline’s line of reasoning: “About a year and a half ago”, she says, “we took a survey of a thousand passengers . . . and they said they wanted lower fares, so we got rid of the meals”.3


While corporations continue to pump out unrealistic drivel, their audiences have grown less credulous, more aware of the difference between corporate image and activity, and more militant when displeased. By organising into single-issue groups, aggravated consumers can give corporations a very public bloody nose. The fur industry was driven to the verge of extinction in the UK by the activities, including advertising, of animal rights campaigners. Barclays Bank was forced out of South Africa in the mid-1980s by student boycotts in the US and UK. Hoover sold off its European subsidiary in 1995 after the fiasco of a miscalculated holiday competition. In the same year Shell’s determination to dispose of its Brent Spar oil rig in the North Atlantic caused sales to plummet in Germany and it was forced to change its mind. Body Shop had to defend itself vigorously against an orchestrated campaign which sought to discredit its ethical stance. These are only the tips of icebergs. A company under public pressure will haemorrhage from silent defections. In a marketplace where consumers are spoiled for choice between identical products, it doesn’t take much to blunt brand loyalties. Even a motorist who is not particularly environmentally conscious may pass up a Shell station for the next brand simply out of a vague feeling of unease.

Yet where audiences believe a company genuinely shares their concerns, and acts on them, the corporate personality is seen to have a soul. Corporate personalities are seen as most genuine and human when they derive from the personality of a living person, like the family companies of old. However, here the advertisement abandons the protective smoke and mirrors of advertising convention for the real world. There’s a venerable advertising agency ditty which goes:


Should the client prove refractory,

Show a picture of the factory,

Only in the worst of cases,

Ever show the clients’ faces.


This is sound advice. A prized and fundamental human skill is forming judgements, rightly or wrongly, about one’s fellow man, and few company chairmen are photogenic or skilled as actors. The Prudential Insurance Company took the dubious step of employing its chairman as its spokesperson in a 1998 revival of its venerable “man from the Pru” campaign. Doubtless the company saw it as a way of personalising an impersonal institution, but in the resentful climate produced by the exposure of industry “fat cats”, today’s consumer is unlikely to perceive the “man from the Pru” as disinterested. In those rare cases, however, where the individual has considerable personal flair, it’s a gift for the publicity machine. Even in the days before instant international hype, high-profile publicity-seeking entrepreneurs were closely identified with the success of the companies they founded, such as Lever Brothers, Thomas Cook, and Marks & Spencer. In 1868, Alfred Bird, inventor of Bird’s custard, prefigured Richard Branson’s ballooning escapades when he took to a tricycle to set the world record for the fastest journey from Land’s End to John o’Groat’s.

When there is a genuine organic connection, the company takes on the personality of its founder and its influence can approach omnipotence. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield founded Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream in Vermont on the faux-naïf image of a couple of ageing hippies. The spur to their amazing transformation into a multinational company came when the nationally distributed Häagen-Dazs brand, the ersatz creation of the mammoth Pillsbury company, applied pressure to distributors to freeze out the tiny firm. Ben & Jerry replied by targeting Pillsbury’s cherished logo, the Pillsbury Doughboy, with a publicity campaign with an air of artless grassroots improvisation, “What’s the Doughboy afraid of?” The campaign won allegiance for the underdog all over America and, after their legal victory, swept Ben & Jerry to national prominence. The company’s positioning is anti-corporate and displays an ethos of social concern: 7.5 per cent of its profits are devoted to charity, and suppliers are selected from areas of social need – cookie-bakers in the ghettos of New York, coffee-growing co-operatives in Mexico. The folksy personalisation of the founders encourages consumers to feel – even though they know better – that this product is somehow not cranked out of huge vats by a multinational corporation, but is made specially for you by the pleasant yokel who appears on the label wearing a T-shirt. Your shared concern about injustice provides a rationale for self-indulgence at a premium price: while gulping down this ice-cream you are also helping to save the world. Inevitably, like all proper revolutionaries, Ben & Jerry fell out, and in 2000 their righteous anti-capitalistic enterprise with its social mission of commitment to community values was acquired by that arch-capitalist icon, Unilever. Their hip flavours such as Rainforest Crunch and Cherry Garcia (named after the late leader of the Grateful Dead) were gobbled up by the Evil Empire.

Anita Roddick sells a moral philosophy, too. Through a topical obsession with animal rights and the environment, she grew a small shop in Sussex into a multinational cosmetics manufacturer and retailer, Body Shop International. Although she was removed as chief executive when the company ran into the sand in 1992, she remained the messianic embodiment of the corporate belief. In-store posters, company videos, an in-house magazine and her autobiographical manifesto, Body and Soul, ingratiate customers and motivate staff by picturing her with Amazon tribesmen and other saintly associations. “How can you be wrong”, she preaches, “when you borrow ideas from Mahatma Ghandi, from Martin Luther King?”

In the past twenty years only one new internationally recognised corporate brand has emerged from Britain: the Virgin phenomenon. That, too, is the brain child of an entrepreneur who linked his personality to a philosophical attitude under an evocative brand name. The package of values which Richard Branson represents springs from his youthful creation, Virgin Records, and his personal exploits as a daredevil balloonist and all-round socially responsible Jim’ll-Fix-It. Like Freddie Laker before him and Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of Easyjet, afterwards, Richard Branson saw the opportunity to cloak himself as a maverick people’s champion and challenge the oligopoly of the international air carriers by founding Virgin Atlantic. The company’s interests soon spread over a disparate agglomeration unified only by the charisma of its founder: railway franchises, megastores, a film and entertainment division, a cinema chain, colas, vodka, financial services, and mobile phones. In 1998 his fashion business took on the designer labels with the disarming reassurance, “Not to worry, Richard doesn’t design them”.

Although middle-aged and one of the ten wealthiest men in Britain, Richard Branson continues to play the role of the youthful underdog. He happily mixes moral issues with business; he supports the legalisation of marijuana, criticises homophobia (he started the biggest gay disco in Europe), and launched Mates condoms to raise awareness of safe sex. He successfully sued “the world’s favourite airline” for unfair business practices. More powerful than any image-building advertising campaign was his offer to run the National Lottery, donating all profits to charity. Branson’s persona capitalises on consumer disaffection with the insensitivity of large companies: a spunky British schoolboy could do it better. His values are iconoclastic, and when he grows up he wants to be Robin Hood. A 1995 survey of teenagers conducted by MORI for City and Guilds, the vocational awards body, found that young women aspired to be Naomi Campbell or Anita Roddick, while the leading role models for young men were Andy Cole, the footballer, and Richard Branson. Another MORI poll the previous year for BBC Radio 1 asked young people which celebrity they thought would be the most appropriate to draw up a revised list of Ten Commandments. After Mother Teresa, the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury came Richard Branson. And his customers have grown up with him; an NOP poll showed that the brand rates highly across the generations. Knighted for his “services to entrepreneurship” (sic) in 1999, Richard Branson himself is the main-spring of the company’s publicity, and is usually personally associated with the advertising. He says he is in “the branded venture capital business”. His Midas touch is not infallible: Virgin Cinemas, and the short-haul airline Virgin Express both disappointed, Virgin pulled out of the clothing market in 2000, just two years after its launch, and the performance record of Virgin Rail has sorely tried public patience. Yet Virgin would be worth a great deal less without his physical presence. It is the world’s most convincing illustration of how companies can bond emotionally with consumers.


Advertisers sometimes fear that really effective direct advertising for their products is inconsistent with projecting an image. The reverse is true: an ad that effectively touches consumer motivations creates the right feeling for the company automatically. In 1960s America AT&T’s advertising programme was rigidly compartmentalised by objective: there were commercials to promote long-distance calling, others to sell extension telephones, and others to promote the corporate image. Separate batteries of attitudinal questions were devised for each category to measure effectiveness in quantitative tests. When, experimentally, the corporate image battery of questions was applied to commercials in other categories, the company was chagrined to discover that some of its most effective image-building commercials were those designed to sell products and services. On reflection, how could it be otherwise, unless the company is striving to “project an image” that does not relate to consumer needs?

Alas, that is frequently the objective. Corporate advertising has been pungently described as like peeing down your trouser-leg: it gives you a nice, warm feeling and nobody else notices. The reason most of us are not interested is that the companies are using an external medium to reinforce, or reinvent, their own internal mythology, which is not how they are seen by the external world. They deceive themselves. This neurosis, of course, infects not only corporate advertising, but also judgements about advertising the company’s brands, too, which helps explain why so much of advertising of all kinds seems so removed from reality.

1 Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, HarperCollins, 1991.

2 BasicBooks, 1978.

3 © Bill Bryson 1998. Extracted from Notes from a Big Country, Doubleday.


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