March 9, 2009
 

The Real Passion of Madison Avenue

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"Someday, someone will write a book about Jesus. Every businessman will read it and send it to his partners and his salesmen. For it will tell the story of the founder of modern business. ...I believe I will try to write that book myself." -Bruce Barton, President, Batten Barton Durstine & Osborne (BBDO) 1925 A.D.

"I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect. It's a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be." - Mel Gibson, Actor, Screenwriter, Producer, Director 2004 A.D.

By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," had the largest opening day ($26 million), weekend ($83 million) and first week ($125 million) of any independent film in history. In its first three months of release it grossed over $600 million worldwide, and is among the ten most successful movies ever made.

Bruce Barton's book, "The Man Nobody Knows" published in April, 1925 by Bobbs-Merrill, topped the non-fiction best-seller list that year and sold 750,000 copies in less than two years. It had nine cloth printings in 1925 alone and eight additional printings in 1926. Bobbs-Merrill continued additional printings through 1928, when Grosset & Dunlap began lower-priced cloth printings (49 cents) until 1940, when Pocket books started issuing 25-cent paperback copies, piling up four printings in the first year. Sixty five years later, "The Man Nobody Knows," is available in a variety of paperback reprints by various publishers. There's even a new biography of Barton, "The Man Everybody Knew," by Richard Fried (Ivan Dee Publishers) that discusses in detail his interpretation of Jesus' life and times.

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Mel Gibson's movie has been a stunning marketing and media event. It stirred together a striking number of high-interest, high-impact issues: the personal vision of a hugely popular movie star with global appeal; early speculation that the actor playing Jesus (James Caviezel) would speak only Latin and Aramaic without subtitles; complaints about anti-semitism by Jewish leaders based on an unrevised script, fueled by anti-semitic remarks attributed to the director’s father; selective and unusually restricted preview screenings hosted by Gibson; stories that a DVD had been delivered by a producer to the Vatican in Rome, and unconfirmed reports that the Pope had personally viewed the movie and positively stated "it is as it was"; and a hard R rating for long, harrowing, close-up scenes of Jesus being repeatedly flogged, flayed and scourged.

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Never has an independent film without box-office stars opened with higher unaided awareness, feature cover stories in a host of national magazines and nationwide curiosity. It has been event marketing without precedent – the kind of product launch that most marketers spend lifetimes dreaming about and never come close to realizing. What is perhaps most remarkable is that nearly all the elements of the launch were orchestrated and tightly controlled throughout the pre and post-launch weeks not by a studio or battery of public relations specialists, but by Mel Gibson himself. "The Passion" was in essence a one-man introduction.

When the movie's gross topped $300 million--four weeks into release and long after a number of negative reviews had stopped having any discernible impact (if, indeed, they had any impact at all in the first weeks of release)--most criticism of the film simply disappeared. The industry’s awe and respect for a megahit has never wavered. Is this the greatest mass communications story ever told?

Well, back in 1925, Bruce Barton was also enjoying an incredibly successful career. Barton was a copy/contact man in the agency he co-founded and ran as President. He had risen to the top rung in what would shortly become BBDO, the largest Madison Avenue agency (with over $30 million in billings) just 20 years after his graduation from Amherst. Judging from its sales and reviews, the positioning of Jesus in Barton’s book as the world’s premiere corporate officer must have been received as an unusual kind of media and publishing event.

The New York Times Book Review immediately pronounced it "a book different from any other that has been written about Christ...it will interest everybody." The Toledo Times enthused that "new and startling and inspiring is the picture of Jesus as a vigorous, forceful dynamic figure". Ministers across the country weighed in with unbounded praise and thanks; one called it "a monumental work, an interpretation of Jesus which goes straight to the mark in this modern day of ours."

Barton’s vision was to see in Jesus the same skills set that he wanted to see infused in his agency employees including, no doubt, his partners and himself. “By the power of his faith in himself he commands,” wrote Barton,” and men instinctively obey.” Jesus had the power to pick men, and to recognize hidden capacities in them, and then “he molded them into an organization which carried on victoriously (after his crucifixion).” Barton also points to the “vast, unending patience” of Christ as a key quality in the contemporary ad man. And because he had patience, “Jesus loved it all – the pressure of the crowds, the clash of wits, the eating and the after-dinner talk. He was the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem.”

In contrast, Gibson’s mission is to show a suffering Jesus. His film has been widely praised and widely condemned for its unrelenting focus on the beatings, lashings and other punishments inflicted on Jesus. To be sure, Gibson’s insistence on this goes far beyond any other established film treatment of Jesus’ journey to the cross, including Nick Ray’s “King of Kings,” George Stevens’ “the Greatest Story Ever Told,” Pier Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” and Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Seen in an advertising context, Mel Gibson has demonstrated the single-minded, lazer-like focus of the longest lasting and most effective campaigns ever created by BBDO or any other Madison Avenue agency. This is a powerful reason - perhaps the most important reason next to Gibson’s total involvement in creating and selling the picture--why “The Passion of Christ” has sold more theater tickets than all four films mentioned above sold collectively.

Barton weaves a compelling portrait of Christ’s many sided strengths and gifts in the workplace. Barton proclaims “Let there be light” to be the charter of the advertising profession. Jesus was an early riser at first light…like anyone in business today who hits the ground running at dawn or before; he understood that all good advertising is news, and he never forgot the urgency of deadlines. Jesus felt there was no limit to what he could accomplish.

Barton marches the reader though Christ’s accomplishments in healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry and cheering the poor, intercutting parables with constant references to the newspapers and magazines that dotted the marketplace of 1925. He calls the parable of the good Samaritan the greatest advertisement of all time. Barton clearly admires Jesus’ work ethic, and he salutes his brevity with words, noting that when Jesus wanted a new disciple, he said simply, “follow me.” And he acknowledges the necessity of repetition, as important in Jesus’ pilgrimage as it is in his agency’s media planning and buying.

Once he warms to his task, Barton frequently cross-cuts Biblical language and advertising language. One example: Jesus said, “Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister, and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.” Barton applies the quote to the marketing and value-added concept of superior service, whether selling shoes, cars or banks. He calls service – real service – “the spirit of American business.” That’s as true in 2005 as in 1925. Smith Barney’s current service campaign pictures the company representative carrying the kind of battered old briefcase common in the 1920s, with headlines like “Your financial consultant may share your goals…But does he share your work ethic?” DHL’s current campaign is “The extra mile is part of our regular route.” Barton summarizes the argument for superior service: “The big rewards come to those who travel the second, undemanded mile.”

Bruce Barton dismisses the crucifixion in three brief sentences (“They nailed his perfect body to the cross. Two robbers were executed with him. It was over.”) Mel Gibson shows us Christ’s perfect body brutalized and bloodied in almost every conceivable way. The endurance of pain, of abasement, of cruel torture is practically the sole focus of the director’s inquiry. The movie and the book share next to nothing in common, except, of course, the brilliance of their creators and their uniquely different perspectives.

Which is the real passion of Madison Avenue? At The Madison Avenue Journal, we think it’s your call, and we’d be happy to hear from you.

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